The Grammarphobia Blog

Tosser & Twee LLP

Q: American here;  I am never sure that I understand the source, meaning, and cultural nuances of British vernacular, most recently the gist of two words, “tosser” and “twee.” Where are they on the incendiary scale?

A: “Tosser” and “twee”—sounds like a UK law firm. Well, both of these British terms are derisive, but to varying degrees.

The slang noun “tosser,” dating from the 1970s, is pretty high on the incendiary scale. It’s defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a term of contempt or abuse for a person; a ‘jerk.’ ” (A “jerk-off” is closer to its etymological roots.)

The colloquial adjective “twee,” dating from the early 1900s, isn’t nearly as insulting. British speakers use it the way Americans use “precious” in its negative sense of overly nice or affected.

“Tosser,” the OED says, is probably derived from the verbal phrase “toss off,” meaning to masturbate. This phrase can be transitive (as in “he tossed himself off”) or intransitive (“he tossed off”).

The OED’s earliest recorded use of this phrase is from a poem in The Pearl, a journal of Victorian erotica that was briefly published in 1879 and ’80: “I don’t like to see, though at me you might scoff, / An old woman trying to toss herself off.”

Oxford also describes an earlier noun usage, in which “toss-off” was “coarse slang” for “an act of masturbation.” This usage was recorded as far back as 1735 in The Rake’s Progress etchings of Hogarth: “And take a Toss-off in the Porch.”

Suffice it to say that the underlying sense of “tosser,” a term first used in the 1970s, is masturbator—or, to use a slightly earlier British vernacular term, “wanker.” (On the source of the mid-20th-century verb “wank,” the OED has only “origin unknown.”)

But despite its underlying sense, “tosser” is generally (though not always) used loosely to mean, as the Collins English Dictionary says, “a stupid or despicable person.” 

The OED’s earliest published example is from a 1977 issue of the British music magazine ZigZag: “She came on in a big mac and flashed her legs like an old tosser before throwing it off.”

This milder example is from the British mystery writer Peter Inchbald’s novel Short Break in Venice (1983): “Poor little tosser. As if he wasn’t suffering enough already.”

As for “twee,” it represents “an infantile pronunciation of sweet,” the OED says. And originally “twee” simply meant “sweet,” as in this 1905 example from Punch: “ ‘I call him perfectly twee!’ persisted Phyllis.”

But today, Oxford says, the adjective is seen “only in depreciatory use,” and means “affectedly dainty or quaint; over-nice, over-refined, precious, mawkish.”

Standard dictionaries agree.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), defines “twee” as chiefly British and meaning “affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint.”

The Macmillan Dictionary puts it this way: “something that is twee is intended to be attractive but seems too perfect to be real.”

The OED gives this example from a 1983 issue of a former BBC publication, the Listener: “Mike Nichols’s thriller-fantasy about dolphins should be as nauseatingly twee as the worst Disney—but it isn’t.”

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