Page last updated at 10:30 GMT, Thursday, 30 July 2009 11:30 UK

Is the T-word offensive?

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

When David Cameron used a word that is similar to "twit" in a radio interview, his press officer broke into a sweat. So why does this word offend people?

OED excerpt
The OED says it's vulgar slang

The recording studio at Absolute Radio erupted in giggles when Mr Cameron used the T-word on the breakfast show thus:

"The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it - too many twits might make a twat," he said.

According to presenter Christian O'Connell, press secretary Gabby Bertin ticked the Conservative leader off as he left the studio for using a swear word. He thought at first that she meant another segment of his interview.

If he really is that innocent, unaware that the word refers to female genitalia, then Mr Cameron is in illustrious company.

Robert Browning, in his poetic play Pippa Passes in 1841, uses the word erroneously, thinking it to be an article of nun's clothing:

Then owls and bats
Cowls and twats
Monks and nuns in a cloister's moods
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry

It is thought Browning took his (mis)cue from a 17th Century poem, Vanity of the Vanities, that made the same mistake.

Cameron uses T-word

The first documented evidence of the word was in 1656 and it appeared in Bailey's dictionary in 1727, although it was not spoken in the refined social circles that Browning would inhabit 100 years later.

"Browning, in his innocence, didn't know what it meant," says a spokeswoman for the Oxford English Dictionary. "It was pretty unspeakable in the 19th Century.

"A lot of very rude vocabulary tends to not get into print, so it's difficult to get really early evidence. The F-word is a nightmare, although it goes back to the Middle England period."

Double meaning

There's nothing rare about the T-word in print nowadays, with authors like Germaine Greer, Norman Mailer and Henry Miller having used it in famous works.

It has a second meaning, which is probably what Mr Cameron had in mind - as a term of abuse for a person regarded as stupid or obnoxious. The first known use of it in this sense was in the 1920s.

For everyone else it means 'total idiot' - but it's still offensive, it's a fight-starting word
Tony Thorne

Duncan Black, editor of the Collins English Dictionary says: "Despite its potential to cause offence, the misuse of this word is a common mistake.

"It is often used innocently as a substitute for - or perceived as a slightly racier alternative to - twit or prat, both of which are considered very mild forms of insult. It is likely that the confusion occurs simply because the words sound so similar."

The literal meaning, as a description of female anatomy, is very rarely used, says slang expert Tony Thorne, of King's College London.

"Maybe people over 50, for them that is the main sense of the word, but for everyone else it means 'total idiot' - but it's still offensive, it's a fight-starting word.

"If you call someone it to their face, unless they are a close friend and you are teasing them, it's a fairly offensive word - although not on the same level as the C-word or the F-word.

"It looks like 'twit'. People who aren't on the street and don't use street language are maybe not aware of how strong it is."

New media

Mr Cameron falls into this category, trying to adopt street language but making "a mess of it", says Mr Thorne.

It's not a widely deployed term of abuse, he says, and there seems to be conflicting opinion about regional uses and interpretations.

But thanks to the satirical character Nathan Barley - created by Charlie Brooker - it became shorthand for irritating media-types who live or socialise in fashionable Shoreditch, east London.

Although in some minds it is associated with "twit", that single vowel change from "i" to "a" can make all the difference.

Twit makes it into Mr Thorne's book, 100 Words That Make Us English, because it's a "homely and comfortable" insult that is quintessentially English, he says.

The other does not.

Below is a selection of your comments.

There's definitely a north-south divide with the t-word - it means 'twit' down south. I'm a southerner and when I started visiting Manchester over 20 years ago there was a very sharp intake of breath when I used it in that sense. I trained myself not to use it but the t-word still causes as much offence as the c-word in Manchester even now. Generally, I'd say southerners swear alot more than northerners though.
Bec , Monton, Salford

My mother, born 1929, heard it in the 80s and thought it was merely a stronger form of "twit". She had used it for several weeks before we took her to one side and explained its actual meaning. She spent a week frantically trying to contact anyone she might have offended by using it in front of them. Up here, it's also used as a verb e.g. "I could twat 'im with one head-butt."
Lily O, Leeds UK

I think currently, it is used in similarity to 'twit', and my friends and I have used it quite often in a teasing manner. However it can vary by region, as one of my friends deeply offended a friend of hers in Edinburgh by using the word. Even though she meant it in a playful manner. Therefore you need to be wary of this. However if it had been anyone except David Cameron who had said it, would there be such a furore?
Rachel, Aberdeen

I am over 50 and when I grew up it was (and as far as I am concerned still is) certainly an extremely offensive remark and did refer to female genitalia, as did the word "pr*t", which is now more commonly used as a reference to your backside and as used by the Americans.
Captain Black, London

Yes it had a meaning a long time ago which is more offensive than it is today - but language evolves and for 99.99999% of the population it is a cheap jibe or insult. In the context used I think the press officer etc. need to grow up a bit.
Matt, Southampton

My understanding is that it's partly down to regional differences. I was told by someone who worked for a national media outlet that it's considered a fairly standard, inoffensive term in the South of England (like 'twit'). However in the North, especially the North East, it's considered to be a fair bit more offensive (more like the 'c-word').
Michael, London

Some words can be offensive to some but not to others. For example, I grew up in South East London where people my age (60+) find the word 'berk' offensive. Why? Berk is short for Berkshire Hunt where the word 'Hunt' is Cockney rhyming slang for the 'c' word . Elsewhere 'berk' is used quite extensively without causing offence
Terry Suttle, New Eltham, London

Wasn't there an episode of Fawlty Towers that had a anagram of the name on the hotel's signpost that read Flowery Twats??? Let's get a grip and not become too "PC"!!
Paul Lewis, Cannes, France

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