We, the Tweeple: Why Twitter Inspires So Many New Words

Twisticuffs, tweetups, twirting. It's getting downright twidiculous

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Public relations firm Burson-Marsteller released its annual “Twiplomacy” report today. An analysis of how world leaders use Twitter, the name is the baby born of obvious parents: Twitter and diplomacy. It’s also a soldier in an army of fusion words—or portmanteaus—inspired by the social media site.

Every day, new combinations march into being. Twitteracy is the ability to understand the medium. Twittebrities are the A-listers who use it. Twitterati, Twittersphere, tweeple, tweetup, twisticuffs, twelete, twirting. There’s no question that there are a twitload. But why, exactly, is Twitter such a fusion muse? And will any of them last?

Linguist Ben Zimmer theorizes that these words keep cropping up because the “tw-” intro is so distinctive. After the name of the platform inspired the name of its central unit—the tweet—early adopters had a formula they could use and reuse, he says. The name Twitter is also “playful and distinctive,” he says, which perhaps encourages wordplay. (Certainly we’d be less likely to go around portmanteauing everything if Jack Dorsey and his friends called their invention Really Brief Communications, Inc.)

The vowel sounds in “Twitter” and “tweet” are also common, easy ones to rhyme. Though fusion words by no mean have to be built on rhymes—consider: chillax (chill and relax), bodacious (bold and audacious)—catchy ones often are. Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of American Heritage dictionaries, says that while most portmanteaus lack “staying power,” a good example of an established, widespread term they’ve added to their dictionaries is staycation. Yes, it’s cheesy. But it rhymes with the word its playing on, and that makes it easy to remember.

Writing a CNN op-ed about the world’s fast obsession with cronut and Sharknado, author Lee Siegel suggests that pop culture may be in the midst of a “portmanteau craze,” driven by technology and a focus on visuals rather than concepts. A sharknado, he says, is a hard image to drive out of one’s brain box. Siegel goes so far as to wonder whether the viral spread of words like bromance and frenemy “herald a new phase in American verbal creativity.” Kleinedler, for one, is skeptical—though he concedes that we may be more aware of portmanteaus than we used to be. That’s partly because crowded (social) media sites quickly latch onto anything new, clever and distinctive enough to rise above the noise on a given day. “Snappy portmanteaus certainly work well on Twitter, where space is at a premium and linguistic memes can spread quickly via hashtagging,” Zimmer says.

However, spreading quickly does not often give way to lasting long. Cronuts are already ceding ground to crookies in news stories. Obamaquester is a distant memory. The Internet gave new slang the potential to reach more people much faster—and when more people are exposed to new words, there’s a good chance they’ll get tired of them faster, too. “Very often these new portmanteaus are just the meme-tastic flavor of the week,” Zimmer says, “and their fall to the linguistic scrapheap is just as rapid as their ascent.”

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, NewsFeed’s weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.