Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Snarky twee wonk post

I came across "twee" the other day in the back pages of a Reader's Digest, a magazine that tries to be hip and current, yet still appeal to its geriatric subscribers. My maternal grandparents were regular subscribers and they bought subscriptions for their children. After they passed on, for many years my mother bought a subscription for my family. But its been a few years since I've owned a copy. I still read them at the public library, and last week checked out a few copies for nostalgia's sake.

On the back pages of one recent issue is a photo essay highlighting whimsical elements in interior design photographs. Such details as putting two soda bottles on a settee, as if lounging in bliss, or a Buddha statue reaching for a bowl of apples, are called "twee." I imagine some editor at Reader's Digest thought they were clever and hip using "twee" because of its morphological connection to "Tweet" and that most modern web phenomenon, Twitter. (http://twitter.com/greglocascio, or see sidebar right). "Twee" is a fairly modern word, but is older than my grandparents and fell out of popular usage long ago. Reader's Digest is going through a mid-life crisis, trying to be hip and relevant, but never quite able to shed its fuddy duddy conservative milquetoast populism. I kind of like that the world's most popular magazine is a dorky kid trying to be cool.

Twee means "tiny, dainty, miniature" according to dictionary.com. It's origin is British, from 1905, and is derived from a childish pronunciation of "sweet." (I taut I taw a putty tat!) It's initial meaning was more cutesy, but as its swirled forward through the cotton candy machine of time, the word's become sweeter and sweeter. According to Webster's, "twee" means "affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute or quaint." It is now cloyingly sweet, enough to make your teeth hurt after one bite.

Some Twee examples: Cabbage Patch Kids, any photos of baby animals or cats and dogs getting along with each other, The Osmonds (and most other Mormons), and Justin Bieber. Oops, Bieber's a 'Tween.

Another word with 20th century origins that has only come into popular usage in the last 20 years and now suffers from overuse is "wonk." According to etymonline.com, "wonk" is an American slang word coined at Harvard University and was first written in a Time magazine article in 1954. There are three classifications of students, jocks, preppies, and wonks. "Wonk" is synonymous with "nerd," but with more expert connotations than the latter. It came into cultural zeitgeist in the Clinton administration, which had many "policy wonks." Anyone who is obsessive about a particular subject, often to the exclusion of polity, would be considered a "wonk." Presentation of an arcane detail or niggling over fine points in a conversation would be considered "wonky."

When I think about it, Willy Wonka is wonky about confections, most of which is twee.

Another word with origins in the early 20th century (1906) is "snarky." (Microsoft Works doesn't recognize this word. It keeps changing it to "snaky"). Its original meaning is "irritable, short-tempered" and is derived from "snark," which mean to snort. Don't be piggish and act snarky.

But like "twee," as "snarky" has come into modern usage, its meaning has evolved. It now means, according to Merriam-Webster, "sarcastic, impertinent, or irreverent in tone or manner." Anything that's "in your face" or even ironic is called "snarky" these days. I would argue that the latest generation of teenagers would all bear the "snarky" label. Maybe not. To sneer or snort or have attitude takes too much effort. Aloofness is the defining mood of today's kids. "Whatevs, old man."

When I first read "snarky," in the context of a movie review, I thought it meant "with attitude," which is close to the actual definition. "Snarky" is just a little more snide than attitude, but retains a similar confrontational puffery. I also think something or someone that is "snarky" is affected, tongue-in-cheek, and overly self-conscious. Snarkiness is almost always intentional, a ploy.

There is a chronology to the three words I've focused on today. "Twee" could describe a cute child, "snarky" a sneering teen, and "wonk" a careerist adult.

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