Words are like people. Some of them look alike because they come from the same parentage. Both “sanguine” and “sanguinary” are adjectives and were born from sanguis, Latin for blood. So, after learning that a sanguine person is cheerful or optimistic, you might run into the word “sanguinary” while reading a text, look at its ruddy face, and expect it to tell you a joke or recite an inspiring quote. Don’t be surprised if it pulls out a knife and threatens you. The only thing it’s cheerful about is bloodshed and cruelty.
Other words, like the nouns “desert” and “dessert” look so much alike, people can hardly tell the difference. If you look closely, you’ll see that “dessert” looks more curvaceous. It’s that extra “s” in the middle. They’re not related although both words have ancestors who came from the Latin. Other than that, the only similarity is that desert is a waste place, and dessert goes to a waist place.
The other day I ran into “twee” online. It was modifying a noun, music, and speaking in a colloquial accent telling everyone who would listen that the music was sickeningly sweet. I’ve heard it say things like that before. It also has the remarkable ability to make bird sounds. You may have heard it imitate the wren by saying twee-twee-twee.
Twee in its original sense of sweet or dainty first appeared in print in the British magazine, Punch, around 1905. Someone heard a children pronouncing “sweet” as “tweet,” then took the word and dropped the “t.” It was the linguistic form of stealing candy from a baby. Now it disparages music and people by calling them mawkish or overly sentimental.
I like how the word sounds. Twee rhymes with glee and whee, words of enthusiasm and joy. I’ve heard birds chirp it, and I’ve had small children answer “Twee” when I asked their age. Elmer Fudd climbed twees looking for that wascally wabbit, Bugs Bunny. “Be vewy, vewy quiet, I’m hunting wabbits,” he used to say. Twee is a word that fits in your pocket, a small joke of a word, a word with punch.
Even though the masters of irony and sophistication have forced twee to make disparaging remarks about other people, I won’t abandon it. That’s just its corrupted twin. Elmer Fudd and I know the real twee, and any word that is a friend of birds, Elmer, and three-year-olds is a friend of mine.