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The name Twitter is not itself a pun, but it’s a set-up for a pun. It pretends to be a simple metaphorical name that casts the textual cacophony of its special kind of web exhibitionism as bird noise. But then there’s the connection to the expression all atwitter, used to describe someone filled with emotional agitation and excitement. That expression makes lines like this one, from Dan Frost’s Twitter story in the SF Chronicle, inevitable:

A simple little technology has the digerati all atwitter.

Frost can’t resist making another pun in his next line:

Make that the Twitterati.

In case you haven’t come across Twitter yet, it’s an application that lets anyone read and contribute to a constant stream of short text messages from people describing what they’re doing at that very moment. You can follow it on your phone, an IM client, or the Twitter website.

The Name Inspector signed up for a Twitter account but has not yet succumbed to its temptations. He works hard not to check his email every five minutes–the last thing he needs is something he can check every five seconds.

Something interesting about the metaphor behind Twitter is that it evokes the concept of twittering from the perspective of birds, not humans. If you’re on Twitter, you’re listening to others twitter and you’re twittering yourself. You are a bird. The Name Inspector imagines that for birds it’s very reassuring to be surrounded by the cheerful chirps of your conspecifics. That seems to be at the heart of this name’s charm.

Never mind that the word twitter sounds inconsequential. That’s beside the point. Or rather, maybe it is the point. Twitter is the antidote to news sites where you can read endless articles about the last terrible thing that happened. It lets you revel in non-news–the minutia of everyday human existence. It also, of course, creates a surprising sense of intimacy among complete strangers (even more than a blog does).

A somewhat unfortunate association evoked by this name is the word twit, which has not quite been reclaimed as a badge of honor the way geek and nerd have. Oddly, there’s a netcast company called TWiT (for This WEEK in TECH) whose founder stopped participating on Twitter because his many fans there assumed his company must be part of or associated with Twitter in some way. Consider the irony: someone whose company is called TWiT worrying about being associated with someone else’s company name.

The sound of the name Twitter is light and quick, and there’s something onomatopoetic about it. The voiceless alveolar stop [t] followed by the liquid [w] comes just short of making a whistling or chirping sound. When you say the name, the smallness and rapidity of the movements you make with your tongue, especially when pronouncing the tiny second syllable, suggest little creatures like birds.

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3 Responses to “Twitter”

  1. on 19 Apr 2007 at 3:01 pm dwlt

    Indeed, the word “twitter” in Scotland is used to describe the noise birds make. It’s also used when someone isn’t making any sense: eg “What are you twittering on about?” Seems oddly appropriate. ;-)

  2. on 10 Aug 2010 at 3:31 am Also

    ‘Twitter’ also means to chat.. Surely that’s where the whole thing comes from?

  3. on 11 Aug 2010 at 9:12 am The Name Inspector

    Thanks, Also, for stopping by. Maybe you’re right, but the word isn’t commonly used that way in the US (as far as I know), so I think the bird-related meaning is the motivation for the name. I notice you have an ac.uk email address–maybe the meaning related to human speech is more common in the UK.

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