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Oddly enough, the OED (1971 Compact Edition) has no entry for twig to, only for twig something:

twig v4 slang or colloq. [Origin unascertained]

[...]

b. To become aware of by seeing; to perceive, discern, catch sight of; to recognize.

1796 J. G. Holman Abroad & at Home iii. ii, ― He twigs me. He knows Dicky here in his real and masquerade character both.

1801 M. G. Lewis Tales Wonder, Sailor’s T. ii, ― With strange surprise and fear, Jack Tackle’s ghost I twigg’d.

1825 Lady Granville Lett. 30 Jan. (1894) I. 339 ― They have twigged me.

1860 Hunting Grounds Old World Ser. i. xii. (ed. 2) 189 ― The leader, whom at last I twigged lying down and chewing the cud.

1879 F. Pollok Sport Brit. Burmah I. 191, ― I twigged the tigress creeping away in front of us.

Still, that's clearly the same as twig to so it will serve. What is the origin of this expression? Neither the OED nor etymonline.com provide any etymological information for this meaning of the word twig. It occurred to me that it might come from a hunting/tracking analogy where the sound of a broken twig would alert the hunter to the presence of their prey or the prey to the presence of the hunter. Is there anything to this or am I making it all up?

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  • If OED say origin unascertained, I don't see any chance we'll be able to give you a better "authoritative" answer here. Fairly obviously the (relatively uncommon) inclusion of an extraneous to doesn't affect either the meaning or the etymology. My guess is that may be partly caused by association with, say, to cotton [on] to something. Dec 14 '15 at 19:05
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers yes, I'm not too bothered about the to, which is why I included the definition quoted. However, I've actually received at least one answer here which improved on the OED and another which quoted original research beyond what found on etymonline so I wouldn't rule it out. I am not looking for opinion here but for actual evidence one way or another. This is, after all, (also) a site for professional linguists so I hope one of them might have something to add.
    – terdon
    Dec 14 '15 at 19:11
  • 2
    If Ken Greenwald is still active on Wordwizard, you might want to ask there. His sleuthing is legendary; OED is about number 20 in his resource-checking order. Dec 14 '15 at 19:18
  • 1
    Hmm, I know it as "to twig onto something".
    – Hugo
    Dec 15 '15 at 7:43
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Wiktionary says this verb twig is from Irish and Scottish Gaelic tuig ‎(“to understand”).

Irish editor Stan Carey wrote on the Macmillan Dictionary blog in September 2014:

At an early age in Ireland I learned the Irish word tuig, meaning ‘understand’, often used in common phrases like An dtuigeann tú? (‘Do you understand?’). You can hear several regional pronunciations of the word at the excellent Irish dictionary website Foclóir.ie. Comparing tuig with twig we [World Wide Words writer Michael Quinion, and Carey] find they sound alike and mean similar things. Of course, this could simply be coincidental – but the correspondence, while inconclusive, is certainly suggestive.

Terence Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English says this Irish derivation for twig is possible, while Loreto Todd’s Green English says it ‘may well’ be the origin. Bernard Share’s Slanguage is less convinced, indicating instead that the two words have been confused. That’s a possibility, and it should be noted that tuig ‘understand’ is a word in Scottish Gaelic too. So the etymology of the verb twig remains uncertain, but Irish tuig seems to me a good candidate. If you’ve other ideas, let us know in the comments.

A comment from Colin McCarthy reads:

Your suggested derivation receives some support from Sean Beecher (1991 A Dictionary of Cork Slang The Collins Press). To quote from page 103, “Twig, To, verb. To understand. Use: You twig? You understand? Derivation: Possibly Irish ‘Tuig’ – to understand. And note ‘Twig’ – a divining rod for water, hence by extension ‘understanding’. Wright. And also ‘Twig’ – I catch your meaning, I understand (Irish ‘Tuigim’ – I notice). Brewer.”

And this comment from Michael Parsley:

Webster’s International Dictionary gives, in addition to the meaning of a ‘small shoot without leaves’, the meaning of to use a twig as a diving rod (searching for water).

This might be a source of the meaning to understand (suddenly).

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In a phrase like 'Why don't you twig on to the fact that ....' that sounds very similar to the present tense of Irish tuig, which is tuigeann (pronounced closely to 'twig on'). In Irish,'she understands ...' would be 'tuigeann sí ...'.

Irish is pronounced extremely closely to English she and has the same meaning in this context.

The Irish tui has more of a glide sound than a full-on w, but an English ear could easily think there was a w in there.

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  • Could you clarify in which dialects of Irish this off-glide would be found? I don’t recall ever hearing a glide, and the standardised pronunciation given on Wiktionary, /tˠɪgʲ ~ tɪg’/, doesn’t have one either. Considering that (an) dtuig(eann) is the origin of English dig (as in ‘you dig?’ = ‘you understand?’), at least some English speakers didn’t hear any glide either. In general, Anglicised Irish names sometimes have a w after velars and s (Gweedore, Sweeney) but sometimes not (Kevin); but never elsewhere (Felan, Malcolm, all the places with Tieve/Teev = taobh). Jan 26 '19 at 11:48
  • teanglann.ie/en/fuaim/tuig - if you click on the Ulster pronunciation particularly. It's not present in Connacht and debatable in Munster. Jan 27 '19 at 12:31
  • As a speaker of Ulster (well, Donegal) Irish myself, I detect no glide at all in the word. The pronunciation provided by Teanglann here sounds more like taig to me. Is it perhaps an east Ulster thing? Jan 27 '19 at 12:34
  • B'fhéidir. Cloisim féin an 'w', ach is Sasanach mise, is dócha go bhfuil mo chuid cluasa difriúil. It's possible that an English ear hears it but not an Irish speaker? Jan 28 '19 at 13:20
  • It could be (though I’m not a native speaker either – I am a sometime phonetician, though). Jan 28 '19 at 13:22

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