Meryl Davis and Charlie White made history this week as the first Americans ever to win the Olympic gold medal in ice dancing. Their story was made even more dramatic by the longevity of their partnership (17 years), the longtime rivalry between them and the Canadian team Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and the surprising fact that both teams share the same coach and even train together. But for language watchers, an even more interesting question than who would take first place was this:

What's a twizzle?

As those of us who don't habitually follow ice dancing have now learned, a twizzle is a traveling spin on one skate, or to be more precise:

A traveling turn on one foot with one or more rotations, which is quickly rotated with a continuous (uninterrupted) action. The weight remains on the skating foot with the free foot in any position during the turn, and then is placed beside the skating foot to skate the next steps. (United States Figure Skating Association)

It's a required move in the ice dancing routines, and was spoken of again and again by the commentators. But it's not a new move. Although 2014 is the year when twizzle broke through into widespread recognition, you can see it turn up in the stories from the winter Olympics in Vancouver and Torino, although by the time you get back to Salt Lake City in 2002, it's pretty scarce.

It's even in the Oxford English Dictionary, although not with a meaning specific to ice dancing. Dating from the late 1700s, it simply means to twirl something or form it by twisting something. Here's one of the OED's attestations, from 1840:

In vain she cut and screwed the thread, she burnt it in the candle...she twizled it between her finger and thumb...but enter the eye of the needle it would not.

The intransitive meaning of twirling oneself, and the corresponding noun meaning, also date back to the early 1800s. The earliest use of twizzle that I've found in the context of ice dancing is from Ice Dancing: A Manual for Judges and Skaters, published in 1966 by the Canadian Figure Skating Association.

The OED's best guess as to the word's origin is that it is a variant of twistle, which derives from the verb twist plus the suffix -le. This suffix isn't a productive one anymore, which is why you don't find it in grammar books listed alongside favorites such as -ness and -able. Linguists call it a "frequentative" suffix, which means that it carries a meaning of repeated or continued action, and indeed, verbs like twinkle, jangle, wrestle, and bustle do suggest actions that go on for a while, instead of happening quickly and then stopping.

As it turns out, twizzle has a number of other meanings, which haven't made it into the OED or the Random House Unabridged dictionary on my desk. Here are some that I've found, and I'm sure there are at least a few more:

  • Probably the most familiar meaning is the Twizzlers brand name for ropy red or black candy, originally licorice flavored, that you can find in grocery stores and movie concession counters. The candy was invented in 1845, only a generation or two after the earliest citations for twizzle in the OED. The meaning of "twist" is clearly in play here, as the ropes look as though they were created by twisting together multiple strands of candy.
  • An episode from the first season of the Dick Van Dyke Show in 1962 has the Twizzle as the latest dance craze, invented by accident by a dreamy teen who calls himself Randy Twizzle. He introduces it as a cross between the Twist and a sizzle—it had something to do with the sizzling of hamburgers on the grill in the diner where he invented the dance. To my eye, it looked pretty much like the Twist, but you can judge for yourself.

  • Twizzle stick is a variant of swizzle stick (aka, really thin little straw that you get in mixed drinks), and seems to be more common in British English.
  • Some dogs, especially Labrador retrievers, have twizzles at the end of their tails: As one guide describes it:
Many Labs develop a "twizzle" at the end of their tails at around 4 or 5 months. A Lab's thick coat wraps itself around the tail, and an inch or so will continue off the end in a twist of hair.
  • Twizzle wire is a kind of wire used in making bracelets. It looks somewhat like a spring.
  • In 1997, the practice of gynecology was introduced to the Versapoint Bipolar Electrosurgical System for performing surgery on the uterus. The electrodes come in three varieties, known as the ball, the spring, and the twizzle, which resembles a drill bit and "is preferred to the others because it is a more precise cutting instrument and it can work closer to the myometrium with a lower power setting... " (link)
  • A sailing rig consisting of twin foresails is known as a twizzle rig.

As an indication of how much twizzle's profile has risen with these Olympic games, consider that even Wordnik's Angela Tung, writing about twizzle and other words ending in -izzle just last October, had nothing at all to say about ice skating when she defined it. I've gone from not knowing the word twizzle at all last week, to having at least seven definitions for it now, if you don't count the candy. It's enough to make your head... you know.

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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Monday February 24th 2014, 8:38 AM
Comment by: sigrossman (Chevy Chase, MD)
Plimsoll was first brought to my knowledge by a Podcast by Roman Mars, 99% Invisible. It is a great radio show/podcast/website about design like VT is about words. It's sponsored, in part by the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He has a picture of the plimsoll graphic on the website.

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