Sunday 28 September 2014

On twats

Four well-known lines from Robert Browning's 1842 poem 'Pippa Passes':
     Then, owls and bats,
     Cowls and twats,
     Monks and nuns, in a cloister's moods,     
     Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry.

As every schoolboy used to know, Browning mistakenly believed that 'twat' was simply another word for a nun's headgear, for a wimple. This was not the case. Twat meant then what it means now, a vulgar synonym for the human vulva, possibly derived from Old Norse 'þveit' meaning 'cut', 'slit', or, (cough), 'forest clearing'.

I found out today that Browning's howler probably arose from his misunderstanding of a line in a satirical poem from 1660 called Vanity of Vanities: 'They talk't of his having a Cardinalls Hat / They'd send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat.' 

(The novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton apparently thought a twat was a tadpole. You can look this up for yourself).

'Twat' is a less offensive word than some, although our Prime Minster 'Dave' Cameron was criticised for using the term during a radio interview on 29 July 2009, when he said, with a sudden access of wit:

           The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it – too many twits might make a twat.

What a twit.

Incidentally 'twitter' appears several times as a euphemism for menstruation in Gerald Kersh's 1957 comic novel Fowler's End. I've never come across any other example of this possibly unique usage. 

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