[Ads-l] more on "twerp" part two

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Mon Sep 18 10:03:11 UTC 2017

Was T. W. [Thomas Wade] Earp the first twerp? J.R.R. Tolkien and the poet Roy Campbell (a friend and traveling companion with Earp to France) are rather good tradents claiming that he was, as OED cites. There is no reason to suppose Tolkien named him (they were friends), nor that he was joking to his son, and Campbell plausibly said it was the rugger jocks who named him. Here I'll provide a bit more of Oxford accounts.

We noted "twerps" referring to homing pigeons flying to from Britain to Antwerp sometime considerably before 1865 (the date of death of the person quoted). That, by itself, seems unimportant for "twerp" as we know it. Except that "twerp" has been used as an equivalent for "chirp." E.g. "She [a bird] gave a twirp to Master Rob, as much as to say, 'Well, here he is; I am his now.'" [Imagina, by Julia E. Ford, 1914 p. 24 via HathiTrust.] If this has any relevance, because Tommy Earp's voice was remarked on, let's rephrase and stipulate that Earp was likely the first human twerp.

Constantine Fitzgibbon, The Life of Dylan Thomas (1965), p. 295-6. On one occasion we had been with him {Dylan] and Tommy Earp, the art critic. Tommy was an almost etiolated figure with the most exaggerated Oxford accent I have ever heard. When an undergraduate before [?] the First World War he had once been arrested for being drunk and disorderly in an enormous basket of strawberries at Covent Garden. Next morning the magistrate asked him why he had climbed into the basket, and Tommy, in fluty tones, had replied: 'For valetudinarian reasons, purely valetudinarian reasons! 'Don't address me as if you were president o the Oxford Union...' 'But I am' wailed Tommy. [He was, 1919-1920.]

Uys Krige, Orphan of the Desert (1967) p. 41-2. I remember Campbell telling me how the word "twerp"--that achieved such a world-wide resonance during and after the second World War--originated. One of his best friends in the early twenties during his single year at Oxford had been Tommy Earp, brilliant wit, writer, art connoisseur and youngest president of the famous Oxford University Debating Society. The boisterous, rugby-playing, horse-riding, club-loving and rather philistine section of the students--among whom, incidentally, Roy had quite a number of friends--were inclined to dislike Earp for his superior intellectual attainments and what they considered his "highbrowism". So they telescoped his name T. W. Earp in "Twerp"....

Eric Whelpton, The Making of a European (1974) p. 124. When he arrived at Oxford, he was a shy provincial boy noted for his awkward ways and was known as the twerp.... [but ten years later he was] the uncrowned king of the undergraduates. [An atheist, he never got a degree, for failing to pass a New Testament Greek exam.]...He had a thin quavering voice that added to the quality of his witticisms and flow of commentary.

Peter De Polnay, My Road: An Autobiography (1978) p. 17 [Gives the story about Earp to the Magistrate, with "valetudinarian," and "I am" but after arrest "on Boat Race Night for biffing a policeman."]

Roy Campbell, Light on a Dark Horse: an autobiography (1952, 1969) [Krige, above, p. 42, says it includes discussion of twerp. I may quote it, when I get it, if interesting, in a part three.]

D. H. Lawrence's published works and letters do not include the word, but he found Earp's review of his 1929 catalog of paintings annoying, and replied: I heard a little chicken chirp: My name is Thomas, Thomas Earp! And I can neither paint nor write [though he did both] I only can set other people right. All people that can write or paint do tremble under my complaint. For I am a chicken, and I can chirp; and my name is Thomas, Thomas Earp.

Stephen Goranson


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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