The Grammarphobia Blog

Twat not

Q: I’d read parts of Browning’s poem Pippa Passes over the years, but I never got to the end until the other day. In the closing song, Pippa says: “Then owls and bats, / Cowls and twats, / Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods, / Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!” I hesitate to ask, but what does Browning mean by “twats”? The only definition in my dictionary is the unmentionable one.

A: Most of us are probably familiar with these famous lines from Browning’s poem about a little Italian girl named Pippa who passes through the lives of several characters, changing their destinies:

The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn:
God’s in his heaven—
All’s right with the world!

You’ll find that excerpt from Browning’s long dramatic poem in any anthology of 19th-century English poetry. But you may not find the lines you quoted from later in the poem, comparing the owls and bats of evening to monks and nuns.

But “twats”? What’s going on here?

The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary apparently wondered the same thing as they were gathering quotations four decades after the poem’s 1841 publication.

So they asked Browning— at least that’s what one supposes from a rather cryptic note in the OED’s entry on “twat”:

“Erroneously used (after quot. 1660) by Browning Pippa Passes IV. ii. 96 under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun’s attire.”

We discuss this risqué business in Origins of the Specious, our book about book about language myths.

“It doesn’t take much imagination to fill out the story between the lines,” we write. “Browning apparently told the OED that a ‘twat’ was a nun’s headdress, comparable to a monk’s cowl.”

When the editors asked him why he thought so, we continue, “he told them he’d learned the word from an anonymous seventeenth-century poem, ‘Vanity of Vanities,’ about an ambitious clergyman.”

Here are the key lines from “Vanity of Vanities,” quoted in the OED entry: “They talk’t of his having a Cardinall’s Hat, / They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat.”

As we write in Origins: “Browning had lived a sheltered life, so it’s not surprising that he thought the ‘twat’ in the naughty satirical poem was a nun’s hat, not (God forbid) a nun’s vulva. One wonders how he got hold of the poem in the first place.”

One also wonders, we add, “how he and his equally sheltered wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, managed to produce a son.”

Although Browning was ignorant of its true meaning, “twat” wasn’t unknown in Victorian England. It was a slang expression, first recorded in the mid-1600s, meaning just what you’d think— the female pudendum.

The word’s origins are obscure, but Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Paul Beale, suggests that “twat” may be related to “twachylle,” a word from the 1400s meaning a passage or lane.

“Twachylle,” according to the OED, comes from an even older word for a fork in a road. Other sources suggest a link to the Old Norse word thveit, a forest clearing.

But back to Browning. Did he ever use the word “twat” over tea with Elizabeth and their friends at Casa Guidi in Florence? If he did, the friends were too tactful to correct him.

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