From “Awesomesauce” to “Unlike, v.”: Twitter and the OED

Twitter is emerging as a major source of quotation evidence for the Oxford English Dictionary. In the revisions and additions made to OED3 in 2018, it was the seventh most cited source. In 2019, it was the second most cited source, with 501 quotations, rivaling the Times (of London), with 560, and clobbering the Times (of NY), which was #3 at 366. In all there were 1,022 tweets cited by OED at the end of 2019 (80% of which were added in 2018 and 2019), and I see OED.com has the number now up to 1,269, so they’re on pace for another big tweet-quoting year.

Almost all of the OED’s current major sources are newspapers and other periodicals, and one can see why, in the age of digitized media archives: these sources produce a lot of words, all of which are searchable, sometimes stretching back hundreds of years (in the case of the Times, e.g.).

Twitter only goes back to 2006, but it has the same scale and searchability advantages as these publications (evidently OED maintains its own twitter archive, as many of the accounts it cites have now been deleted), plus the added advantage of capturing an additional register. Among the lemmas illustrated by tweets are:

awesomesauce, bastarding, Bobbit worm, contemptibleness, crudball, dotard, douchey, sausage fest, stupidious, stupidous

I don’t want to give the impression that Twitter is only being sourced for neologisms, colloquialisms, and vulgarities: among the entries with the most tweet evidence are away (7 quotes), chicken (9) and chicken derivatives (18), down (6 ), grass (6), and so on.

But certainly it is a good source for neologisms, colloquialisms, and vulgarities! Take the first of these categories. Tweets are cited as the first written evidence of the following words:

hashtag, hashtagged, Latinx, listicle, lumbersexual, mansplainer, omnishambolic, retweet, retweeting, showrooming, simples, tweeting, twitter, Twitterati, twitterer, twittering, twittersphere, unlike

As well as the first for new senses of these words, some old and some new:

agric, arlarse, butt, catch-up, cock, cryptocurrency, dicksack, dotcom, drone, droning, hashtag, like, lumbersexual, M, maft, massive, retweet, selfie, stan, their, them, themselves, they, top bin, totes, trend, tweet, tweeter, unlike, YOLO

Many of these new words and senses feel very much established, and in a sense OED’s use of Twitter documentation reinforces that: a 2019 revision to each of their, them, themselves, they (used to refer to non-binary or genderqueer persons) tracks back to Twitter threads from 2009 (credit to @genderbitch, @thebutchcaucus, @pieskiis @FireboltX), showing just how long this use has been in the air (note: though singular, this is not the same as the more general singular they, which OED traces to the 14thC!).

Along the same lines, tweets have been sources of evidence for various words describing evolving norms around gender and sexuality. 2018/19 happens to be a period in which OED was attending to such words more especially (even re-revising they, which had already been revised in 2013), and also the years when twitter became a major source of quotations, so it’s hard to say much about causality, but it’s notable I think that tweets appear in senses of asexuality, bi-gender, bi-gendered, biromantic, hir, heteroromantic, homoromantic, misgender, misgendered, & trans*.

There are also more ephemeral cultural influences being documented via Twitter. Take for instance dotard, updated at the end of last year, with, among others, five quots from 2017/18:

2017   @Skualg 1 Oct. in twitter.com (O.E.D. Archive)    ‘Keep politics out of sports’ said the dotard politician who subsequently tweeted about sport.

2017   @DavidKennerly 22 Sept. in twitter.com (O.E.D. Archive)    I say that as someone who is entering into his own dotardage.

2017   @kelzcouch 21 Sept. in twitter.com (O.E.D. Archive)    Dotardism runs rampant in DC.

2018   @ginrulwestmore 26 Apr. in twitter.com (O.E.D. Archive)    He is ‘Dotard-like’ in his insatiable need for public attention.

2018   @roddreher 29 May in twitter.com (O.E.D. Archive)    I have reached that stage of middle-aged dotardy.

I wonder how many people, reading the OED twenty or fifty years from now, will get the reference in each of these tweets: Kim Jon-un’s Sept. 21, 2107 insult to Donald Trump, a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard”.

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