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Translating Twitter

Follow us!We all use this every day, either for work or for pleasure. But how much about the language of Twitter do we actually know? Where did the name come from? Has the app invented words since its inception? Let’s take a look at the language of one of the most widely used social media networks in the world.


First, what in the world is a “twitter?” Most of the lexicon of Twitter is based around birds, and it’s for a reason. The definition of “twitter” is “chirps from birds.” Another definition of the word is a “short burst of inconsequential information.” What better way to describe Twitter as a whole?

Also, there’s the term “atwitter” as in “I was all atwitter at finally seeing Britney Spears live.” The idea of Twitter is people tweet about things they are… excited/nervous/scared/interested/happy about, so this fits as well.


Speaking of tweets, this also goes along with the happy birds chirping away outside. It’s literally “a chirping note,” and helps describe what a typical post on Twitter is like. Short, chirpy…though not always necessarily happy!


Wait, what? What the heck is an octothorpe? Well, you probably know them from its “new” name, the almighty hashtag. We now use them to help categorize and organize conversations and memes on Twitter, but did you know they originally started back in the 1970s?

The octothorpe came about during the time of touchtone phones (you may have heard people call the mighty octothorpe by its mundane name, the “pound sign.”) The “octo” part of the name is easy, as the # symbol has eight points on it. “Thorpe” is a little bit more obscure. Various theories purport that it comes from a silly slang term throw around Bell Lab’s in the 1960’s or that it honors James Oglethorp, an 18th century general who helped found the colony of Georgia in 1732! Also theorized is it honors an Indian athlete who won the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Olympics. Either way, it’s pretty random.

The octothorpe was in severe danger of vanishing before Twitter got its tendrils on it. Now it’s renamed and so commonly used it’s bound to be around for ages.

(Check out World Wide Words for more theories on the origin of the mighty little octothorpe.)

Fail Whale

fail whaleIf you’ve been on twitter.com and don’t just use it through the dozens of desktop and mobile apps, odds are you’ve run in to the Fail Whale. Originally called “Lifting a Dreamer,” the whale was created by Yiying Lu as a greeting to her friends overseas. Originally an translation of well wishes from Lu, Twitter popularized the image, and new name, as a representation of problems on a website (namely, scalability).

Other Languages

If you had to guess, how much of Twitter is in English? 95%? 85%? Maybe as low as 75%? Would you imagine 50%?

That’s right, half of the tweets posted to Twitter are not in English. The top 4 “foreign” languages that make up the other half are Japanese, Portuguese, Malay, and Spanish. Some of the other languages that show up are Greek, Chinese, Hebrew and even Tamil. If you needed proof that Twitter has become a global phenomenon, you needn’t look any further than this!


Twitter has also contributed many new terms, often by a portmanteau of “Twitter” plus another word. For instance, a drunk tweet (never a good idea!) is a “dweet.” A user who tweets is called a “tweeter” while the act of posting itself is known as “tweeting.”

Are you one of the top tweeters on the website, known world-wide and constantly reposted? Then you are a member of the “twitterati,” a portmanteau of Twitter and “Illuminati,” the Latin word for “enlightened.” Feel like you just can’t stop checking the app all day? Then you may be a “tweetaholic!”

Clearly the madness has only started on these silly terms. Perhaps one day every single word will be combined with Twitter – something we can only call a “tweetastrophe!”

Be sure to follow us @Rev to join us on this, and other great rides, through language and translation.