Twitter is now 'X' but what happens to words like twitter, tweet, tweeting, quote-tweet and re-tweet?

Can you un-invent words?

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 10 Aug 2023, 5:25 PM

When I wrote two columns here about trademarks that have entered the English language and become so commonly used that their brand status is forgotten, I had overlooked the rare possibility of another problem — one that, I’m sure, affects many of my readers. What happens when a trademarked expression that has entered common use falls out of favour with its owners — and then decides to change?

That’s exactly what has happened with Twitter, the ubiquitous social media messaging app, which gained hundreds of millions of users around the world and entered into the language. The messages you sent on Twitter were called “tweets”, and when you sent them, you were “tweeting”. Twitter became so popular in such a short span of time that, from its appearance in 2006, it achieved what only a special short list of companies have accomplished: it entered the language.

As usual, news agencies were first off the mark. The Associated Press Stylebook adopted “tweet”as an approved word in 2010. The following year, the top prize came Twitter’s way, when the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary added “tweet” as both noun (“I have issued a tweet”) and verb (“Will you tweet this story?”) in 2011. America’s equivalent, the Merriam-Webster dictionary, followed suit in 2013. The words twitter, tweet, tweeting, quote-tweet and re-tweet were implanted into the lexicon of English speakers around the world.

Then, in less than a decade from that first breakthrough, came Elon Musk, who spent $44 billion to purchase Twitter. Within a year of his taking over he had decided to dispense with the name and familiar blue bird logo. “Twitter, Inc.” is now “X Corp”. The tweeting blue bird has been retired and replaced with a forbidding X against a black background. But what happens to words like twitter, tweet, tweeting, quote-tweet and re-tweet? “X” doesn’t lend itself so easily to being transformed into a useful word — you can’t say, “I have issued an X” or “will you X this story?” or worst of all, refer to a recent post as “my X” without sounding ridiculous.

Indeed, it’s just as problematic the other way around. When someone speaking of a former partner or a divorced spouse refers to “my ex”, might they not be assumed to be referring to a post they’ve issued on Mr Musk’s messaging platform?

The folks at X are still uncertain themselves. If they write you an email, your email in-box still shows you have a message from Twitter. If you try to do something on their site, you see evidence of their confusion: if you write a tweet, you still need to press a blue button to publish it, but it now says “post” instead of “tweet”. To re-post it, however, you still tap “retweet.”

The Associated Press, who issue the famous Stylebook that first embraced “tweet” as a word, analysed the problem by speaking to Nick Bilton, the author of a book on the phenomenon called Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal. His response: “Language has always come from the people that use it on a day-to-day basis. And it can’t be controlled, it can’t be created, it can’t be morphed. You don’t get to decide it.” In other words, as long as people are speak of tweeting and tweets, it doesn’t matter what Mr Musk wants or doesn’t like, that will remain the term.

Interestingly enough, Twitter didn’t start out as Twitter but as “twttr” — without vowels, since it was inspired by SMS texting, which had severe limits on how many characters you could use. It changed to Twitter when the founders bought from a bird fancier for $15,000, and the word took off. Initial uses even spoke of “twittering” until “tweeting” became the preferred word — until 2023, when Elon Musk decided to do away with it.

Imagine the irony: a billionaire spends $44 billion purchasing a brand-name that has entered popular usage and is an accepted part of the language, then decides he wants to change it, and people still continue to use it anyway! It seems there’s one thing about language that money can’t buy: you can’t pay enough to un-invent words.

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