Is it true, as a fun-fact list making the rounds via E-mail claims, that a pregnant fish is called a twit?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
We debated this one in the office. Little Ed was of the opinion that a twit is somebody who believes what he reads on E-mail lists. But Jill insisted that, as skeptical scientists, we shouldn’t reject claims on a priori grounds, antecedent to inquiry, because usually if you investigate them at length the column turns out to be a lot funnier. So we investigated, which consisted of Jill E-mailing a guy at the Goldfish Society of Great Britain. (There’s a society for everything.) His reply:
(1) Goldfish don’t get pregnant — they’re egg layers. Only taxonomically termed “beasts” can be pregnant. One says of egg-laden goldfish that they’re ripe.
(2) He had never heard of a pregnant, ripe, or any other kind of goldfish being called a twit. However, he had heard that another name for a goldfish in the family way was a twat.
“Excuse me, sir,” Jill wrote back. “A what?”
The goldfish guy explained, “There are vast differences between the colloquialisms and even grammar of the two diverging strains of the language,” i.e., American English and English English. (Apparently vast differences in spelling, too. The goldfish guy originally wrote colloquilaisms and grammer.) “Twat is found in the Oxford English Dictionary and is still listed as a term for a female goldfish ‘with egg development,’ but as a term of archaic usage.”
We turned to the OED. The compilers of this noble work, determined to include every bona fide English word, had indeed listed twat. But instead of defining it themselves, they chastely noted, “See [quotation] 1727.”
We glanced down the impressive array of citations of twat usage over the centuries. Ah: “1727 Bailey vol. II, Twat, pudendum muliebre. Twat-scowerer, a Surgeon or Doctor.” This was the familiar twat of our childhood, although the lads in the school yard hadn’t used Latin. We noted that twat had been employed in the traditional sense by such masters of the language as e.e. cummings (“On Tuesday an Uhlan / To her twat put his tool in”), Henry Miller, and Germaine Greer (“No woman wants to find out that she has a twat like a horse-collar”). No mention of fish at any point.
We also looked up twit, the entries for which filled more than a column of tiny type. No fish there either.
The goldfish guy was adamant. “Twits and twats do not appear in the shorter OED versions, just the large tomes.”
Our version of the OED weighs maybe a hundred pounds. Obviously the goldfish guy was on drugs. We abandoned the pursuit of twat as, you should pardon the expression, a blind alley.
Back to the search engines. For a time all that was heard was the hum of the cooling towers for the Cray. Then this from Jill:
“I just found this when I looked up ‘etymology twit’: ‘twirp: t.: a pregnant fish (Q871) 8.1.8.'”
Links were clicked. The following materialized on the screen from a site run by an on-line word sleuth:
“Q871 Forty years ago, looking up dirty words in the dictionary at school, I believe I came across the definition of ‘twirp: a pregnant fish.’ I have never been able to find this since.”
“Now we know who the goldfish guy does drugs with,” I said.
“Keep reading,” said Jill.
“Now the Australian Going Places magazine claims rather that ‘a pregnant goldfish is called a twit.’ It has also been suggested that this is a mistaken definition of twat. Confirmation of any of these, please.”
I rolled my eyes but dutifully looked up twirp (and twerp) in the OED. No mention of fish, gold or not.
Pursuing the Australia angle, Jill E-mailed a fisheries expert down under, who replied, “I am perhaps not the best to ask about Australian slang (I’m a New Zealander, and for us twit and twerp are names for stupid people). However, I asked my colleagues and it seems that in Australia twit is indeed a name for a pregnant goldfish, as well as having the more normal meaning.”
A solid lead or another dead end? Jill knew what to do. She posted a query on a message board run by Australian disciples of the Straight Dope. (They call themselves “the Teeming Handful” — check them out at http://pub31.ezboard.com/bgdope.) [Sorry, that link is defunct and there are no archives.] The response: (a) “It’s definitely an Aussie [urban legend] that twit stands for a pregnant goldfish. It was one of those ‘facts’ we all knew at school.” (b) It’s not in the Macquarie Book of Slang, the definitive work on Australian colloquial speech, or in any other available book of Australian slang. (c) “I’ve asked my friends who are vets, and it’s not a term used by either them or by fish breeders.”
So there you have it. You can bullshit the experts all you want. But the Teeming Millions know.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.