linguistics and lexicography Love English

Can you twig it?

© GETTYGiven how close Ireland and Britain are geographically, standard English has surprisingly few words that originated in Irish (less surprising when politics and social history are taken into account). Examples include banshee, galore, shamrock, and perhaps smithereens. Informal English has a few more, one of which may be twig, meaning ‘realise’ or ‘understand’. But its origins, as we’ll see, are murky.

‘Do you twig what I’m saying, or do I have to spell it out?’ wrote James Joyce in Dubliners. It serves as a nice example sentence for the verb: if you didn’t know what it meant – if you didn’t twig it, in other words – you could infer its general meaning from this context.



Though sometimes glossed as ‘understand’, twig often has the particular sense ‘understand suddenly’. So it can suggest something like ‘realise’, ‘notice’ or ‘cotton on’, especially when followed by to, as in this line from Cordelia Strube’s novel Lemon: ‘Anyway, preoccupied with the greater good, she didn’t twig to the fact that she’d been seriously wounded.’ This is a shade of meaning covered by Macmillan Dictionary’s definition of twig: ‘to realise something’.

Macmillan labels it ‘informal’, so you’re much more likely to hear it in everyday speech or read it in dialogue or casual prose than you are to encounter it in formal registers like academic, official, or business English. A recent issue of the always-interesting World Wide Words newsletter describes it as ‘a British colloquial term’, noting that the OED cannot establish its origins. I emailed the writer, Michael Quinion, with some thoughts on this, and will elaborate briefly here.

At an early age in Ireland I learned the Irish word tuig, meaning ‘understand’, often used in common phrases like An dtuigeann tú? (‘Do you understand?’). You can hear several regional pronunciations of the word at the excellent Irish dictionary website Foclóir.ie. Comparing tuig with twig we find they sound alike and mean similar things. Of course, this could simply be coincidental – but the correspondence, while inconclusive, is certainly suggestive.

Terence Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English says this Irish derivation for twig is possible, while Loreto Todd’s Green English says it ‘may well’ be the origin. Bernard Share’s Slanguage is less convinced, indicating instead that the two words have been confused. That’s a possibility, and it should be noted that tuig ‘understand’ is a word in Scottish Gaelic too. So the etymology of the verb twig remains uncertain, but Irish tuig seems to me a good candidate. If you’ve other ideas, let us know in the comments.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

8 Comments

  • Stan:

    Etymologists would muzzle
    Most folks’ answers to this puzzle;
    But until I’ve heard the last word,
    To twig from “tuig” is not absurd.

  • Not only is “twig” to be derived from “tuig”, but I’ve also seen claims that the beat generation’s “dig” is another child of “tuig”.”I dig it, man” = “I understand it, boyo.”

  • Your suggested derivation receives some support from Sean Beecher (1991 ‘A Dictionary of Cork Slang’ The Collins Press). To quote from page 103, “Twig, To, verb. To understand. Use: You twig? You understand? Derivation: Possibly Irish ‘Tuig’ – to understand. And note ‘Twig’ – a divining rod for water, hence by extension ‘understanding’. Wright. And also ‘Twig’ – I catch your meaning, I understand (Irish ‘Tuigim’ – I notice). Brewer.”

  • Douglas: Dig ‘understand’ could be from twig, or alternatively from Wolof dega, which also means ‘understand’. It seems to have become popular via jazz circles, but its origin is unclear.

    Colin: Thanks for that reference; I don’t have Beecher’s book, and hadn’t made the connection to divination.

  • Hi,
    Webster’s International Dictionary gives, in addition to the meaning of a ‘small shoot without leaves’, the meaning of to use a twig as a diving rod (searching for water).
    This might be a source of the meaning to understand (suddenly).

  • Hi, Michael. Thanks for that reference. The twig-as-divining-rod may have played a part in the word’s semantic development, though as a non-etymologist I would just be guessing.

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