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The word twat is widely used as a derogatory epithet, especially in British English, referring to a person considered obnoxious or stupid.[1][2] It is also used informally as a verb in British English to mean "to hit or punch a person".[2] In British English and Commonwealth English, it is pronounced /twæt/ to rhyme with that, or sometimes /twɒt/, to rhyme with hot.[3] In North American English, it is pronounced /twɒt/, to rhyme with squat.[1] Twat is also used in British English as vulgar slang for the vulva or female genitals in general.[1]

Historical usage

Robert Browning famously misused the term in his 1841 poem "Pippa Passes", believing it was an item of nun's clothing:[4]

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

In reality, its meaning was the same then as now, and Browning's misconception probably arose from a line in a 1660 satirical poem, Vanity of Vanities:

They talk't of his having a Cardinalls Hat
They'd send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat

Another mistaken (or perhaps dialectal) use was in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1870 science fiction novel The Coming Race, in an apparent satire on Darwin:

Among the pithy sayings which, according to tradition, the philosopher bequeathed to posterity in rhythmical form and sententious brevity, this is notably recorded: "Humble yourselves, my descendants; the father of your race was a 'twat' (tadpole): exalt yourselves, my descendants, for it was the same Divine Thought which created your father that develops itself in exalting you."

It is commonly thought that twat is a noun to describe a pregnant goldfish.[5] However, this definition of the word has never appeared in a respectable dictionary.[6]

In 1892, the linguist Joseph Wright included the word in his Grammar of the Dialect of Windhill with the definition pudendum fem..[7] In the Survey of English Dialects, the word was recorded at several sites as the term for a cow's vulva.[8]

Modern usage

Road sign pointing to Twatt, Shetland which was rated no. 4 of the most vulgar-sounding names in Rude Britain, along with its Orkney counterpart.

Although sometimes used as a reference to the female genitalia (a usage that predominates for the word in North American English), the word twat is more often used in various other ways:

  • As a derogatory insult, a pejorative meaning a fool, a stronger alternative to the word twit – 'He can be a complete twat'[9] (frequent in British and Commonwealth English, and not unheard of in North America)
  • Informally as a verb meaning to hit someone[2] (a British usage)

In August 2008, the publisher of a children's book, My Sister Jodie by Jacqueline Wilson, decided, after receiving three complaints, in future editions of the novel to reprint the word twat as twit so as not to offend readers or their parents.[10]

In a radio interview on 29 July 2009, the leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron, apologised for any offence caused after he used the word twat on live radio during a breakfast radio show interview on Absolute Radio: "The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it – too many twits might make a twat".[11] He attempted to play down the incident, and added: "I was doing a radio interview and I'm sure that people will understand that".[12]

UK punk poet John Cooper Clarke included the poem "Twat" on his 1979 album Walking Back to Happiness.[13][14] It has been described, by Nick Duerden of The Independent, as "memorable".[15]

In his book Filthy English, linguist Peter Silverton asks "Can you distinguish an utter twat from a complete prick? I think you can. An utter twat knows not what he or she does. A complete prick does." [16]


For the purposes of film certification, usage of the word is not considered as serious as many other swear words. It is listed by the British Board of Film Classification as an example of "moderate language" for the 12 certificate.[17] However, the film Kes originally released in 1969 and given a 'U' certificate by the then British Board of Film Censors, denoting suitable for children, has in later years been re-certified PG in the United Kingdom, meaning: "All ages admitted, but certain scenes may be unsuitable for young children. Should not disturb children aged 8 years or over", despite more than one instance of the word.[18] The word also appears in writing in an episode of Fawlty Towers (the letters on the sign have been rearranged to say "Flowery Twats"). The episode has a 12 certificate.[19]

It also is not on the list of the seven dirty words made famous by George Carlin in his 1972 monologue "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television",[20] perhaps because the word is much less common in North America than in Britain, although it was used as a term of insult in Mel Brooks' comedy western Blazing Saddles (1974).

Unlike many other swear words, it is included in Google's auto-complete function.[21]

See also


  1. ^ a b c "Twat". 2015. Retrieved 16 June 2015. This source aggregates material from paper dictionaries, including Random House Dictionary, Collins English Dictionary, and Harper's Online Etymology Dictionary. The word may originate from Old Norse þveit (thveit) meaning 'cut, slit, or forest clearing'.
  2. ^ a b c "Definition of twat in English". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. British and World English lexicon. Retrieved 16 June 2015.
  3. ^ "Shrew". Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press. 2015. Second definition/. Retrieved 16 June 2015.
  4. ^ Mark Liberman (19 January 2005). "Twat v. Browning". Language Log. Retrieved 30 July 2005.
  5. ^ "Twat".[dead link]
  6. ^ John Lloyd, John Mitchinson (2010). QI: The Book of General Ignorance – The Noticeably Stouter Edition. Faber & Faber. p. 18. ISBN 0-571-27378-5. Retrieved 25 November 2014.
  7. ^ Wright, Joseph (1892). A Grammar of the Dialect of Windhill. London, UK: Truebner and Co. p. 251.
  8. ^ Upton, Clive; Parry, David; Widdowson, John David Allison (1994). Survey of English Dialects: The Dictionary and Grammar. UK: Routledge. p. 451. ISBN 9780415020299.
  9. ^ The Origins and Common Usage of British Swear-words
  10. ^ Floot, Alison (21 August 2008). "'Offensive' word to be removed from Jacqueline Wilson book". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 March 2010.
  11. ^ "David Cameron apologises for Twitter radio swearing gaffe". Telegraph Media Group. 29 July 2009. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
  12. ^ Siddique, Haroon (29 July 2009). "David Cameron says sorry for 'twat' comment during radio interview". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 March 2010.
  13. ^ [1]
  14. ^ [2]
  15. ^ [3]
  16. ^ Peter Silverton, The How, Why, When And What Of Everyday Swearing, Portobello Books, Nov 3, 2011
  17. ^ 12A and 12, British Board of Film Classification
  18. ^ Parents' Guide for Kes (1969)
  19. ^ BBFC certificate for The Anniversary
  20. ^ Doug Linder. "Filthy Words by George Carlin". Archived from the original on 23 January 2011. Retrieved 18 February 2014.
  21. ^ These are the filthy words Google voice search doesn't want to hear, PC World