The Grammarphobia Blog

Is Justin Bieber a twerp?

Q: In a recent column in the Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts Jr. refers to Justin Bieber as a “twerp,” which prompts this question: Where does the word “twerp” come from?

A: In his March 16, 2014, “In My Opinion” column, Pitts writes: “Bieber comes across as a twerp so snotty and insolent even Mother Teresa would want to smack him.” Ouch!

As for the word itself, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “twerp” as a “despicable or objectionable person; an insignificant person, a nobody; a nincompoop.”

Well, that gives us several distinct definitions, and you can take your pick. Pitts obviously considers the Canadian pop singer despicable and objectionable, but he wouldn’t be writing about him if he considered Bieber a nobody.

Standard dictionaries generally agree with the OED’s assessment of “twerp.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, defines it as “a silly, insignificant, or contemptible person.”

Where, you ask, does “twerp” come from? Oxford says it’s slang “of uncertain origin,” but the dictionary points readers in a tantalizing direction.

The OED cites a 1944 letter by J. R. R. Tolkien and a 1957 book by the poet Roy Campbell that suggest the original twerp was a fellow student at Oxford University named T. W. Earp (in later life, the art critic Thomas Wade Earp).

In an Oct. 6, 1944, letter to his youngest son, Christopher, Tolkien writes of living on Pusey Street while a student at Exeter College, Oxford, and “going about with T. W. Earp, the original twerp.”

(John Garth, author of a Tolkien biography, says on his blog that the two Oxford students “had jousted in college debates” and “must have disagreed about almost everything.”)

Campbell, a South African, made his comment about “twerp” in Portugal, a 1957 book about his expatriate home. Campbell, who died in a car crash that same year, wrote:

“T. W. Earp (who gave the English language the word twirp, really twearp, because of the Goering-like wrath he kindled in the hearts of the rugger-playing stalwarts at Oxford, when he was president of the Union, by being the last, most charming, and wittiest of the ‘decadents’).”

The OED’s earliest citation for “twerp” (or “twirp”) is from Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases, a 1925 book by Edward Fraser and John Gibbons: “Twerp, an unpleasant person.”

We’ve found several earlier examples, including one in College Humor, a 1921 collection of humor from campuses in the US and Canada.

Here are a few lines from “Hiawatha’s Wedding,” a takeoff on the Longfellow poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” (The parody originally appeared in the Sun Dodger, a magazine at the University of Washington.)

Called Him Onderdonk, the Bonhead,
Wilfred Onderdonk, the Booby,
Onderdonk Pasha Nabisco
Little Twirp, the Chronic Nit Wit.

We’ve seen several earlier dates for the usage in slang dictionaries, but we haven’t been able to confirm them.

American Slang (4th ed.), for example, dates “twerp” to “1874+” but doesn’t offer any citations. The only 19th-century examples we could find in digitized databases were the results of poor scanning (“an twerp” for “Antwerp” was a common error).

So is T. W. Earp the source of “twerp”? Well, the timing is apparently right. Tolkien, Campbell, and Earp were students at Oxford in the second decade of the 20th century, not long before the usage started showing up.

But if T. W. Earp was indeed the source, we’d expect to see one or two early citations for the word spelled “twearp.” We haven’t found any yet. So for the time being, we’ll go along with the OED and say “twerp” is “of uncertain origin.”

As for Justin Bieber, we’ll let our readers decide whether he qualifies.

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