Twits, Tweets, and Twitter

Today’s Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s rather good student newspaper, ran an interesting article on athletes who post messages on Twitter, the social network for people who have very short things to say.

“When Ed [Davis, UNC men’s basketball star] Tweets at 2:30, there’s more conversation about why Ed Davis is Tweeting at 2:30 in the morning when he’s got a game the next day than what he actually says,” [Associate Athletic Director Steve] Kirschner said.

I have to admit that I’m less interested in Mr Davis’s late-night pearls of wisdom than I am in the capitalization of “Tweets”, “Tweeting” and “Tweet” (the simple present, present participle, and noun forms, respectively). Clearly, the name of the website (Twitter) needs a capital since it is a proper noun — although the official logo is all in lower case. But seeing this extended to the derived verbs and nouns surprises me. In fact, even though the DTH editors have correctly applied the rules of the Associated Press style guide, Twitter’s own website doesn’t!

Indeed, a majority of Twitter’s use comes through third-party applications that lets users tweet and read tweets wherever they choose.

They would be well advised to update their page, though. The precedent is that once a word starts being “verbed” and drops its capital letter, it risks losing its protected trademark and its unique association with a particular brand. The classic example is the verb “xerox” (meaning to photocopy) — you can xerox your handout on a Canon photocopier, although the Xerox company would prefer you not to.

The Xerox trademark should always be used as a proper adjective followed by the generic name of the product: e.g., Xerox printer. The Xerox trademark should never be used as a verb.

So, Twitter is safe, at least in US newspapers, but there remains the question: why is called Tweeting? Especially when there’s a perfectly good verb “to twitter”? Twitter — the verb — of course suggests irrelevant, uninteresting babbling (hmm … sounds about right). But tweeting is what birds do.

One of the postdocs in my writing group, Aleck, brought up a wonderful alternative: the archaic verb to twit (not to be confused with the noun twit, which is a mild British insult), defined in the OED as “To tell tales; to blab.” That is, to gossip.

Ah, now that seems much closer to reality. And no, I neither Tweet nor twit. At least not in public.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

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