The original Twerp

I was reading JRR Tolkien’s Letters the other day, and he mentions knowing T. W. Earp, the “original twerp.”

Most dictionaries state that the origin of this word is unknown, but that the time is right (1910-1930) for it to come frrom Ol’ TW.

Has any more light been shed on this? Is Tolkien’s opinion authoritative since he was, indeed, a philologist who worked on the OED?

Do you think Tolkien might have been making a joke? Were his letters all really serious or did they have humor in them? If Tolkien knew where it came from and he worked on the OED, why would they say the origin is unknown?

But here’s a link I found that repeats the same theory. I realize it isn’t exactly an authoritative source.

According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, T. W. Earp was a student at Oxford during the 1910’s. I don’t have the Dictionary with me right now, but I believe he was at Merton. (It would have been a lot more appropriate if he’d been at Christ Church, but there you go.) The Dictionary doesn’t give much other information on Mr. Earp, but the Oxford Handbook also suggests that his name was the source for the word “twerp.”
So, unusual as the story is, I think it might be correct. BTW, the fact that Tolkien worked at the OED and knew Earp doesn’t necessarily negate the story. A superior at the OED might have nixed the etymology, perhaps because the reference linking Earp and “twerp” wasn’t actually written down. Having known a number of people working on the OED (and my wife was accepted for a job there, but turned it down) I can assure you–they like things when they’re written down, and are edgy when they’re not.

Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, has claimed that a “twerp” was originally someone who wore false teeth between his ass cheeks, in order to bite the buttons off the upholstery in the back seats of taxicabs. I don’t know the source of Mr. Vonnegut’s knowledge, or exactly where he said it- it was in an interview pertaining to his novel Jailbird, which I have not read- perhaps this claim is mentioned in the novel. Anyway, if there is anything to this, it suggests an American origin of the term.

I’d always thought it came from Joe Twerp, an annoying stuttering vaudeville comic of the 1910s and '20s. He also made a few movie appearances in the early 1930s, and brings any movie grinding to an agonizing halt (yes, stuttering used to be considered a laff riot!).

In case you think I’m making this up:,+Joe+(I)

Very funny, alonicist. :rolleyes:

T. W. Earp also appears in the 1918 Oxford Calendar. So that’s three sources for him now…

Wow! Thanks, I thought that this had sunk like a stone.

Note that Joe Twerp was not born Twerp, but Boyce. He probably named himself after the insult.

Yes, Tolkien had humour in his letters, but in context this was more of an offhand remark. However, this letter was decades after the fact, so can not be authoritative as documentation. Can personal correspondence be used to authenticate usage for the OED, or does it have to be printed material?

Duke, I may be misunderstanding you, but there is no doubt that there was a T. W. Earp. In fact, according to what I have read, he was a twerp. The question is whether he was THE Twerp, the origin of the word.

To add some info to this topic:

The Letter in which Tolkien refers to Earp as a twerp was written in 1944.

And Partridge says that the word was printed in the 1925 ed. of Fraser and Gibbons, Soldiers and Sailor Words and Phrases .

Seem funny that all those soldiers and sailors would be so literate as to know Mr. Earp.

And, Eve , Joe Twerp would have to have been an international smash at 15 to have caused the term to make it into Fraser and Gibbons.

I’ve seen several replies mentioning Joe Twerp – I’m surprised no one’s mentioned Cecil’s column on the actor.

According to Cecil, JT was in several movies in the mid-30s, which corresponds with the IMDB info – this appears to be a bit after T.W. Earp’s time.

The editor of Brewer’s Dictionary thought so, but I don’t know if anyone knows for certain.

samclem, the fact that soldiers and sailors knew the term “twerp” might actually bolster the contention that the word was an Oxford invention. The top officers of the British armed forces during WWI, and for a good part of the interwar period, were drawn from Oxford and Cambridge. If “twerp” had been in common use in Oxford college slang during the 1910’s, chances are it would have appeared in the military by the 1920’s. Again, only circumstantial evidence.

*Originally posted by Duke *
**Very funny, alonicist. :rolleyes:

Thanks! Vonnegut actually said that, though- I’m still looking for the source. Maybe a Playboy interview?

Oh, here it is. The Vonnegut interview had nothing to do with the book Jailbird, as I had thought. It originally appeared in issue #69 (no kidding) of The Paris Review (1977), and is collected in Palm Sunday. Vonnegut notes that the class of ‘40 nicknamed him “snarf” for sniffing his armpits, though a snarf is technically one who sniffs "girls’ bicycle saddles". He then goes into the (undocumented) definition of “twerp”.

I’m sure Vonnegut says in one of his books that a “twerp” is someone who bites his own fart bubbles in the bathtub.

That would be onomatopoeic, then, in either case…

In the interest of completeness, Tolkien does mention TW in two early letters, both to his fiancee.

The first was not dated but assumed to be October 1914. He mentions “an interesting talk with that quaint man Earp.”

The second was dated 27 November 1914 and just mentions dinner with a man called Earp.

No much evidence, but one could argue that “quaint” is a euphemism for “twerp.”

The bathtub explanation is found in Vonnegut’s Jailbird.

Ah, so there was a Jailbird connection! I thought so. I wonder if theMaledicta website has anything on “twerp”? I’m too lazy to search it right now, but there’s the link.