The New York Times Bans the Word “Tweet”

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By Marc Eastman 

The Awl, and everyone else under the sun, reported today that a memo went out at The New York Times “banning” the use of the word “tweet.” Apparently, Phil Corbett, the standards editor, sent out a memo explaining the reasoning behind the “ban,” and if The Awl can reprint it, I suppose I can too.

While many have commented on the idea in the specific, should it be banned or not, I’m rather taken by the generals of the memo.

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How About “Chirp”?

Some social-media fans may disagree, but outside of ornithological contexts, “tweet” has not yet achieved the status of standard English. And standard English is what we should use in news articles.

Except for special effect, we try to avoid colloquialisms, neologisms and jargon. And “tweet” — as a noun or a verb, referring to messages on Twitter — is all three. Yet it has appeared 18 times in articles in the past month, in a range of sections.

Of course, new technology terms sprout and spread faster than ever. And we don’t want to seem paleolithic. But we favor established usage and ordinary words over the latest jargon or buzzwords.

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One test is to ask yourself whether people outside of a target group regularly employ the terms in question. Many people use Twitter, but many don’t; my guess is that few in the latter group routinely refer to “tweets” or “tweeting.” Someday, “tweet” may be as common as “e-mail.” Or another service may elbow Twitter aside next year, and “tweet” may fade into oblivion. (Of course, it doesn’t help that the word itself seems so inherently silly.)

“Tweet” may be acceptable occasionally for special effect. But let’s look for deft, English alternatives: use Twitter, post to or on Twitter, write on Twitter, a Twitter message, a Twitter update. Or, once you’ve established that Twitter is the medium, simply use “say” or “write.”

As I said, plenty of people are talking about the specific point of whether or not the word “Tweet” should be used. We might even talk about the curiously snobbish idea that the word is a colloquialism, a neologism, and jargon. Leaving off that neologism is actually self-referential, and I doubt anyone would called into question for using it, the word “Tweet” is pretty clearly not all three of those things.

We might even talk about the logical nonsense at work in the memo. Whether “tweet” ever becomes as popular as “e-mail” is as irrelevant to the use of the term as the use of “e-mail” was when it first hit the world. The word is not just any old verb that some group started using, or a new slang for a verb that already exists. It’s a verb describing a specific action (and the noun that results from same) that has no relevant counterpart.

We may well use such replacements as – “post to or on Twitter,” “write on Twitter,” “a Twitter update,” and so on, but this is not to use proper English, it is simply to describe something as though it had no name. You have to imagine the same memo might have gone out regarding “e-mail” at some point, only what were the suggestions then? You may as well tell people to stop using “click” and instead use something more appropriate… like, “engage left mouse button.”

At any rate, the text of the memo is hardly what is most interesting about it. Slipped in as though it isn’t the crucial point is the fact that The New York Times has referred to tweets at least 18 times in a month.

Despite the fact that writers working at the Times find it relevant, to the case at hand and their readers, to refer to tweets 18 times in a month, the belief is that the appropriate response (in this age of newspapers, and their budgets falling left and right) is to demand that those who make use of or engage the Twitter audience… alienate them.

You might as well add the footnote that Twitter itself will henceforth be referred to as “this Twitter nonsense.”