Saturday, December 19, 2015
I think twit is one of those words whose definition we somehow instinctively know. When someone says, for example, "He's a real twit" (or, more likely: "Stop being such a twit!"), we sort of know, don't we, that the person who's a twit is sort of, well, a twit.
I was thinking of this word today not because (as you could suspect) someone applied that word to such an un-twit as I, but because I came across it in my morning's reading, Oscar Hijuelos' posthumous novel Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise (2015; Hijuelos died in 2013), a novel I could not resist because I've read all of Twain (and visited many sites significant to him, including, of course, his grave in Elmira, NY, where he lies in the same cemetery with former Heisman winner and Browns' draftee Ernie Davis, who'd played for Syracuse right after Jim Brown, and it looked as if they would be together to form perhaps the greatest backfield of all time, but before he ever played a game, Davis was diagnosed with the leukemia that killed him; I remember, as a recent high school grad in 1962, watching him jog around the Hiram College track while the other Browns were scrimmaging, etc.; he wore a Browns' sweatsuit and a watch cap and was not moving very fast; he died less than a year later).
I'd also had a boyhood fascination with Henry Stanley (he of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" fame; by the way--the doctor's less-famous reply was "Yes"), a fascination I recount in my memoir Turning Pages: A Memoir of Books and Libraries and Loss, available on Kindle Direct (Amazon). (I know: shameless hucksterism.)
So--given these interests, how could I not read this new novel?
Anyway, Hijuelos' novel is a fine and moving one (as I write this, I have about fifty pages left), and I will blog about it in more detail after I finish.
Near the end of their lives, Twain (1835-1910) and Stanley (1841-1904), who were indeed friends, are talking about what Twain sees as the rise of American imperialism (Cuba, the Philippines); Stanley's not so sure. Anyway, in the course of the conversation, Stanley says, "Or, to put it differently, Samuel, no matter how noble the cause, once the d--d twits take over, greed presides and morality goes out the window" (380).
So ... when I read that sentence this morning, I started thinking about twit and promptly looked it up on my (usually) trusty smartphone, and I saw that it went back to the 16th century. At home, I hopped on (notice how we "hop" online!--as we "hop" on a freeway) the OED, where I learned that its principal use (as a noun) is a taunt or censure of someone (a meaning I don't believe I've ever come across); it is definition 2a that Stanley was using (and that I've long known): a fool; a stupid or ineffectual person, a usage, says the OED, that goes back only to 1934 (oops, an anachronism, Mr. Hijuelos!). It's the verb (to blame or find fault or condemn) that dates to the late 1500s. And, again, this is a use of the word I don't recall encountering--though (see below) I most certainly have.
Shakespeare used it in several times in his trilogy of plays about Henry VI. In Part Two, Suffolk says, speaking of the Queen:
Hath he not twit our sovereign lady here
With ignominious words ... (3.1).
I don't think the use of twit as a verb is going to come back into general usage--and even its noun use is rare now, I think--though, as I said, we sort of instinctively know it ain't good when someone calls us a twit. It sort of sounds like what it means. But other words remain ...
... for example, Twitter. So here's a question to end with: Do only twits tweet on Twitter?