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Q From Alison Saville, West Sussex: On Radio 5 today (15 January 2008) Janet Street-Porter and Simon Mayo agreed that twaddle was (or had been) an indecent word. I've never heard this before, and have always used the word freely. Can you enlighten me on its meaning and origin?

A So far as I can find out, twaddle has always been an insult but it has never been indecent. But I can guess why they should think that.

Facts first, inference later.

Twaddle, meaning trivial or foolish speech or writing, has been in the language since the latter part of the eighteenth century. It is found first of all in the correspondence of Mrs Mary Delany, a famous letter writer, better known for her flower compositions under the title of Hortus Siccus. In 1782, she wrote about an author of the period: “Fanny Burney has taken possession of the ear of those who found their amusement in reading her twaddle (that piece of old fashioned slang I should not have dared to write or utter, within hearing of my dear mother).”

Aha. But it turns out that Mrs Delany just meant that the word was impolite, not obscene. It’s a variant of an older word, twattle, which has mainly been dialectal and hasn’t been recorded much in print. That meant to talk foolishly or idly or to chatter inanely. A twattle-basket was a chatterbox. It seems to have been itself a variation on tattle, as in tittle-tattle, another of those many reduplicated terms that English is so fond of, which has also been written as twittle-twattle. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that these, and other forms, are probably echoic in origin and are primarily colloquial, not often having been written down. So it’s difficult to work out which came first.

My guess is that Janet Street-Porter and Simon Mayo knew about the link with twattle and made the unreasonable assumption that it had a direct link with twat for a woman’s genitals, a low slang term dating from the seventeenth century, whose origin is unknown. Of such wild guesses are folk etymologies born.

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Page created 16 Feb 2008