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How "Tweet" Got in the OED

In the latest quarterly update to the Oxford English Dictionary, one entry in particular has attracted attention: tweet, previously defined only as the chirping of birds, has been expanded to refer to 140-character Twitter updates as well. The OED loosened its usual "ten year rule" to let this newcomer in.

Twitter was born as a social media site in 2006, and early the following year its users playfully coined tweet, as both a noun (a message posted on Twitter) and a verb (to post a message on Twitter). There's no question that tweet has had a meteoric rise since then, along the way getting named the American Dialect Society's 2009 Word of the Year. The Twitter sense of tweet has entered several major dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, and Oxford Dictionaries Online. But the OED, which adds new words at a more conservative pace, has thus far resisted.

Adding a new sense of a word that's only six years old is unusual for the OED, since the dictionary usually waits until there is at least a decade of established usage for a particular term. Our own Ben Zimmer explained to Betabeat why the OED made an exception for tweet:

According to lexicographer Ben Zimmer, the general rule of thumb for the OED is that a word must be in use for around ten years to warrant inclusion, but the rules can be relaxed, particularly in the case of tech-related words.

“It’s happened a few times when it comes to ‘techie’ words that have taken off very quickly,” Mr. Zimmer told Betabeat. “Two examples are Google, as a verb, and podcast, as a noun or verb. Both of those took off quickly enough that the [OED] felt the words were entrenched enough and weren’t going anywhere.”

“The criteria are really just that it needs to have a very strong record in terms of print sources,” he added. “So if ‘tweet’ is appearing everywhere in major publications, then there’s really no denying that it’s become firmly fixed in the lexicon.”

(Read the rest of the Betabeat post here.)

If you write tweet, don't bother to capitalize the first letter, as you might with Google or Facebook when used as a verb. Zimmer spoke to The Atlantic Wire about this distinction:

“The simple answer is that ‘tweet’ isn’t a trademark, or at least it didn’t start as one,” linguist Ben Zimmer told The Atlantic Wire. A word like Google, because it doubles as both the proper noun and verb — Google the company and Google “to search” — has always had an official trademark. And in that case, the verb version keeps the style of its proper noun brand-name.

Unlike made-up nouns Google  or Xerox, Twitter takes its name from a real verb. “Twitter is a ‘suggestive name,’ as it is based on an actual word, twitter, imitative of a bird chirping,” Zimmer explained to the Wire. “And because of that suggestiveness, early adopter were encouraged to think of ‘tweet’ as a kindred term, since it too is an onomatopoetic term for a bird’s chirping.” Both tweet and Twitter as verbs remained acceptable for awhile. And while Twitter got the trademark from the get-go, tweet developed organically and only gained official US Patent and Trademark Office stamp of approval in 2011 — long after its colloquial usage began. [...]

The verb versions Google and Xerox aren't always upper-case though because of what Zimmer calls genericization of brand names into just words. In Oxford Dictionaries Online, google gets the small g treatment for "to search." And the very first time someone used it as such, it also appeared with a little-g, with none other than now CEO Larry Page saying "Have fun and keep googling!" back in 1998

(Read the rest of the Atlantic Wire post here.)

When the OED embraces online usage, there's inevitably a media hubbub. To read about the reactions two years ago when such digital shorthand as OMG and LOL got included, check out "OMG, What's Happened to the OED?"


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Saturday June 22nd 2013, 4:29 PM
Comment by: Soph
I already knew this for a while now!

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