English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

A non-native English speaker said on television that the word twitter originated from an English verb to twite, which means to twitter. Is this true? Does the verb twite exist at all?

share|improve this question
Before considering whether it is true or not, the argument does not make sense to me. “Twitter” originated from “to twite,” whose meaning is “to twitter”?? Which is the first, twitter or “twite”? – Tsuyoshi Ito Sep 1 '11 at 1:37
twitter at etymonline? – Mitch Sep 1 '11 at 1:43
@Tsuyoshi - Why does it not make any sense to you? Just replace "to twitter" with "to make small short sounds" and it will make sense. When he said "whose meaning is to "twitter"", he was speaking about the meaning of the word, not the spelling or pronunciation. – brilliant Sep 1 '11 at 5:47
@mitch EtymOnline doesn't explain that "to twite" actually is a verb, and there is another (rare) definition of "twitter" – simchona Sep 1 '11 at 8:21
I disagree with the close votes on the grounds that the OED shows a meaning of twitter which does, actually, stem from to twite. The EtymOnline entry doesn't cover this possibility. – simchona Sep 1 '11 at 8:24
up vote 6 down vote accepted

The Oxford English Dictionary does include an entry for twitter which is based on the verb to twit. A twitter is one who twits, that is:

trans. To blame, find fault with, censure, reproach, upbraid (a person), esp. in a light or annoying way; to cast an imputation upon; to taunt.

The etymology for this verb is:

Etymology: Originally twite (with long i), aphetic form of atwite v.1, q.v.

Tracing back, the etymology of atwite is:

Etymology: < at- prefix1 + Old English wítan to blame, reproach; compare Old English oðwítan. The modern twit n.1, formerly twite, is an aphetized form of this word.

So the verb to twite did exist and spawned a related noun. However, this is not the same twitter that is used for the sound of a bird. In the case of a bird, twitter is both noun and verb. In this case, the etymology of the verb is:

Etymology: Of imitative origin: compare Old High German zwizirôn, -erôn (Middle High German zwitzern, German zwitschern), Dutch kwetteren, and Swedish qvittra, Norwegian dialect kvittra, kvitra, Danish kvidre (see quitter v.2), in sense 1

The onomatopoeia also predates the verb to twite. The form in which a bird twitters emerged with Chaucer in 1374. The form in which a person twitters to tattle-tale appeared in 1530. So twitter to refer to the sound of a bird is an onomatopoeia. It does not, however, come from the verb "to twite" although there is another definition of twitter which does. The two homonyms come from different roots, although they currently have the same form.

share|improve this answer

Etymonline says:

twitter (v.)
late 14c., twiteren, in reference to birds, of imitative origin (cf. O.H.G. zwizziron, Ger. zwitschern, Dan. kvidre, O.Swed. kvitra). The noun meaning "condition of tremulous excitement" is attested from 1670s. The microblogging service with the 140-character limit was introduced in 2006.

It appears, then, that the origin is onomatopoeic. The noun twite, referring to a type of finch, is also attested to have imitative origins:

1555–65; imitative

Also, if twiting ever was a verb, it sure doesn't show up anywhere in cyberspace. I googled for twited, twiting, to twite, etc, and came up with nil. Twit is a verb, and twite and twites are nouns, but there is no such verb.

share|improve this answer
It seems that the verb should have been "tweeting", when referring to Twitter – Thursagen Sep 1 '11 at 3:26

A Twite is a small bird, a member of the finch family.

It is from its name that we get the word "twitter", which describes the fast, chatty noise it makes.

The web service Twitter was most likely (it is a common belief, but as far as I know unconfirmed) named after this, to exemplify it usage of rapid-fire short (<140 character) messages.

So, 'twitter' in this sense describes the conversation itself, with each message being a 'tweet' (or 'twit' in the original spelling)

share|improve this answer
This answer would be much improved by referencing your source for the information that the word "twitter" comes from the name of the twite. – aedia λ Sep 1 '11 at 1:54
If twitter is onomatopoeic, why is the word twite relevant to its origin at all? – Daniel Sep 1 '11 at 2:22
Fair point DRM, I chose the wrong word there. My mistake. – Jordaan Mylonas Sep 1 '11 at 2:47
But it is onomatopoeic! – Daniel Sep 1 '11 at 2:57
Actually, my original meaning was that it was named the Twite because it twitters. So, I guess, twitter is onomatopoeic, as is Twite. – Jordaan Mylonas Sep 1 '11 at 3:16

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.