A short lexicon for Twitter users. Part 1

A man sits at his desk with a devil on one shoulder and a cherub on the other, considering what to tweet. Credit: Wellcome Library, London (CC BY 4.0).

Some words and phrases that could come in handy when using Twitter, especially political/opinionated Twitter. (You can follow my own sporadic but uniformly bland tweeting here.)

Collins = Collins English Dictionary, OED = Oxford English Dictionary

Ultracrepidarian

(a) Going beyond one’s proper province; giving opinions on matters beyond one’s knowledge (adjective).
(b) One who ventures beyond his scope; an ignorant or presumptuous critic (noun). (OED)

Milkshake ducks

People who (in more elderly slang terms) go from hero to zero, quickly and on Twitter. Usually this is because (1) they become a sensation because they are thought to be wonderful in some universally appealing way, and (2) something then emerges about their past to discredit them.

Why milkshake duck? Because of this tweet:

Milkshake duck is a meme.

Meme

In this context: ‘An image, video, piece of text, etc, typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.’ (OED)

Mostly funny, but increasingly political; as in life, so with memes. Some people think that replying with a meme is a clincher in debates.

Like certain types of jokes, memes have a tendency to become tired and ubiquitous, but then suddenly revive and work again.

The term comes from Greek mimēma, ‘that which is imitated’ (OED). Richard Dawkins used it in The Selfish Gene in an attempt to explain the proliferation of ideas and behaviours that do not seem to make sense in conventional evolutionary terms. Crudely, what he calls memes (ideas, etc) act like selfish genes to propagate themselves.

Opinionation

‘The state or condition of holding obstinately to one’s own opinion. Also: the expression and dissemination of opinions about current issues.’ (OED)

See also opinionating (verb; candidate new word, Collins).

Sealioning

‘A disparaging term for the confrontational practice of leaping into an online discussion with endless demands for answers and evidence.’ (Oxford Dictionary of Social Media)

Usually it’s done with an affectation of polite rationality and often the questions being asked could be answered by spending thirty seconds on Google. The questioning is in bad faith and no answer could satisfy the questioner.

Climate scientists in particular complain that this is a popular form of trolling by climate change sceptics, but it seems to be a common ploy for a certain kind of activist on all sides of every question.Frequently, if sealions are asking for evidence of nasty opinions or bad behaviour, the evidence can be found on their own timelines; e.g. if they’re asking for evidence of anti-semitism (‘I’ve never seen it on Twitter’), then there’s a decent chance they will have endlessly posted and retweeted neo-Nazi propaganda themselves.

You could argue that sealioning is actually the Socratic method/dialectic more or less well done, in which you learn, clarify and define through questioning to obtain wisdom, but really it just seems like the child’s trick of asking ‘But why?’ until teachers or parents lose their cool, which makes them vulnerable in the contest of life, as well as showing that they have been gotten to.

Make your opponent angry … For when he is angry he is incapable of judging aright and perceiving where his advantage lies. You can make him angry by repeated injustice, or practising some kind of chicanery, and being generally insolent. (Arthur Schopenhauer, The Art of Always Being Right)

In particular, when angry someone might say something ill considered, which can then be seized on as proof of badness, etc.

The term sealioning comes from this Wondermark comic strip by David Malik. It has become a meme.

LOL, crying with laughter emoji, etc

Often meant to indicate scornful piratical laughter.

YOU AND YOUR OPINION ARE SO RIDICULOUS THAT I’M NOT EVEN ANGRY, I AM LAUGHING!!! LAUGHING, I TELL YOU!!!

cf. YAWN.

Hyperbole

‘A figure of speech consisting in exaggerated or extravagant statement, used to express strong feeling or produce a strong impression, and not intended to be understood literally.’ (OED)

Emotional hyperbole has become a minor sub-genre on Twitter:

‘I saw a kitten crossed with a labrador last week and am honestly an emotional wreck can’t stop thinking about it am obsessed in pieces in bits etc etc.’

Credulity and the party spirit

Credulity, or confidence of opinion too great for the evidence from which opinion is derived, we find to be a general weakness imputed by every sect and party to all others, and indeed by every man to every other man.

Of all kinds of credulity, the most obstinate and wonderful is that of political zealots; of men, who being numbered, they know not how or why, in any of the parties that divide a state, resign the use of their own eyes and ears, and resolve to believe nothing that does not favour those whom they profess to follow. (Samuel Johnson, Idler, No. 10)

Aporia

Aporia is a ‘doubt, real or professed, about what to do or say’; ‘puzzlement occasioned by the raising of philosophical objections without any proffered solutions, esp in the works of Socrates.’ (Collins)

It’s so rare on Twitter that it’s customary to fall to your knees and kiss the hem of an angel’s celestial gown after spotting it.

Irony and literalism

Irony is saying one thing and meaning another.


Literalism, endemic on Twitter, is the opposite and enemy of irony.

Michael Ignatieff wrote that when you enter politics…

You leave a charitable realm where people cut you some slack, finish your sentences and accept that you didn’t quite mean what you said. You enter a world of lunatic literal-mindedness where only the words that come out of your mouth actually count. (Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics)

As in politics, so on Twitter.

IRL

In real life.

This

Economical way to introduce someone else’s opinion, evidence, experience etc that you emphatically support.

At best, it’s no longer fresh, at worst it’s irritating. Try spending time with someone IRL who just points at things and says ‘This!’ (or have a two-year-old child as your constant companion).

Anyway just wow I’ll just leave this here I can’t even no words.

This hellsite

What the most obsessive users of Twitter call Twitter. Similarly, some heavy users who spend much of their time arguing with strangers complain that it is exhausting and that they are exhausted.

Okay, boomer

A baby boomer is a ‘person born in the years following the Second World War, when there was a temporary marked increase in the birth rate.’ (OED)

Apparently some time in 2019 an older gent in a video clip on TikTok said ‘millennials and Generation Z have the Peter Pan syndrome, they don’t ever want to grow up; they think that the Utopian ideals that they have in their youth are somehow going to translate into adulthood.’ Young people were angered and said it was typical of the baby boomer generation’s disconnected opinions, judgemental attitude and sense of entitlement. The best way of pricking this was just to say ‘Okay, Boomer’ every time an older person said anything.

Subtweet

Referring or implicitly responding to other Twitter users in a tweet without mentioning them directly. Either a name is used rather than a handle, e.g. ‘Paul Fishman’ instead of ‘@Fishmandeville’, or no name is mentioned at all.

It can be sly, humorous, personal, political, work-related, etc. There seems to be a lot of subtweeting among journalists, academics, teenagers and the like.

Snitch tagging

When someone subtweets someone or uses a screenshot of a tweet to avoid interaction/boosting and then someone tags the subject into the conversation. It’s considered to be poor form.

Informers

Trying to get people sacked from their jobs and fired out of a cannon into the Sun for various transgressions seems to be a more-or-less accepted practice on Twitter, but some excellent people still follow the old ways.

Sciolist, sciolism

‘A person whose knowledge is only superficial, esp. one who makes much of it; a pretender to learning.’ (OED)

‘The practice of opinionating on subjects of which one has only superficial knowledge.’ (Collins)

Clapback

A crushing retort.

The term comes from rap. The noise of a pistol shot is supposed to sound a bit like a clap, and clap here means shooting someone. As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has it, ‘A clapback, then, is return fire—whether literal or, as is more the case today and on Twitter, metaphorical.’

The best clapbacks are fierce and the correct response to them is yas queen.

Sidelong bearded glances

Often seen in avatars, preferably with what’s intended to be an enigmatic smile suggestive of great things behind the beard.

активные мероприятия

Translated: ‘active measures’, or: the Russians did it.

In addition to collecting intelligence and producing politically correct assessments of it, the KGB also sought to influence the course of world events by a variety of ‘active measures’ (aktivinyye meropriatia) ranging from media manipulation to ‘special actions’ involving various degrees of violence. (Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive)

It’s not exactly a secret that the current Russian regime, led by a former KGB officer, also likes active measures, albeit with a postmodernist twist.

It took a while for those working at RT to sense something was not quite right, that the ‘Russian point of view’ could easily mean ‘the Kremlin point of view’, and that ‘there is no such thing as objective reporting’ meant the Kremlin had complete control of the truth […] This is a new type of Kremlin propaganda, less about arguing against the west with a counter-model as in the Cold War, more about slipping inside its language to play and taunt it from the inside. (Peter Pomerantsev, ‘Russia Today’, in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia)

The Soviets propagated conspiracy theories (e.g. about JFK’s assassination) to discredit the ‘Main Adversary’ (the USA), and before them the tsarist secret services got up to all sorts of similar high (low) jinks, and were almost certainly involved in forging and disseminating The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a work whose poison is still active today. (See also The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, which his collaborator Ford Madox Ford claimed was based on a real incident involving the tsarist secret services.) The current Russian regime also seems keen to undermine sources of knowledge, trust, confidence and any sort of objective truth.

Everyone’s heard about Russian troll factories and bots lurking on Twitter and other social media organs, newspaper comment sections, etc, doing this and that, and also various insinsuations about Russian money and influence being used to affect elections, referendums, etc.


While Russian manipulation is undoubtedly influential, it’s possible that we exaggerate not only its ubiquity but its effectiveness, or at least its specificity. Rather than being a finely calibrated tool to achieve specific ends, it’s possible that it’s more like the teenagers I saw a while ago urinating upstream of two younger boys trying to fish.

We tend today to exaggerate the effectiveness of persuasion as a means of inculcating opinions and shaping behavior. We see in propaganda a formidable instrument. To its skillful use we attribute many of the startling successes of the mass movements of our time […] The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. It penetrates only into minds already open, and rather than instill opinion it articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients. The gifted propagandist brings to a boil ideas and passions already simmering in the minds of his hearers. He echoes their innermost feelings. Where opinion is not coerced, people can only be made to believe what they already ‘know’. (Eric Hoffer, The True Believer)

See also компрометирующий материал, aka kompromat, compromising material, another Soviet speciality that may well have survived.

Some recommended reading:

Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive I: The KGB in Europe and the West (Penguin)

Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive IIThe KGB in the World (Penguin)

Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Serif)

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (HarperCollins)

Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, The Light that Failed: A Reckoning (Penguin)

Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia (Faber)

Normies

What people who think they are clever and interesting call people who they think are less clever and interesting than them.

Gosh!

Ratio

In general referring to the ratio of likes/retweets vs comments, but more commonly referring to a disproportionate number of comments compared to retweets/likes, because this usually indicates disagreement. When someone is being roasted, it’s traditional to say ‘I’m just here for the ratio’ and post a meme of someone eating popcorn. And of course no one would say roasted, they’d say ratioed, because it’s also a verb.

This is someone being ratioed:

There are also variations, such as the coward’s ratio. This is where people only like but don’t retweet, possibly because a tweet is controversial:

Golden ratio

If you are more followed than following, you have achieved the golden ratio on Twitter.

There’s also this alternative definition:

Manichaeism, Manichaeanism

Originally the ‘system of religious doctrines, including elements of Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Buddhism, etc, taught by the Persian prophet Mani about the 3rd century […] based on a supposed primordial conflict between light and darkness, or goodness and evil.’ (Collins)

Later a Catholic heresy and also a term for radical dualism, it can also be used more casually to indicate a simplistic belief in a universe of good vs evil, light vs darkness, the material world vs the spirit, etc.

Ford Madox Ford wrote about giving a ‘sense of the complexity, the tantalisation, the shimmering, the haze, that life is’ and it’s fair to say that this is rarer than Manichaeanism on Twitter.

Bigotry

Bigot: ‘A person who is intolerant towards those holding different opinions.’ (OED)

Bigotry: ‘Intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself.’ (OED)

Weakmanning, nutpicking and the motte and bailey

A straw man argument is, of course, an ‘intentionally misrepresented proposition that is set up because it is easier to defeat than an opponent’s real argument’. (OED)

If strawmanning is essentially inventing an easily refutable argument for your opponent, weakmanning is choosing the weakest possible version of your opponent’s argument (and/or the weakest person on the opposing side) to argue against and nutpicking is choosing the wildest version of your opponent’s argument (and/or the wildest person on the opposing side).

In the motte and bailey, weakmanning is essentially reversed, with someone switching from a more ambitious argument that is hard to defend to a more limited but more defensible position. It’s based on the analogy of a medieval castle:

A Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of pleasantly habitable land (the Bailey), which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier, such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible, and so neither is the Bailey. Rather, one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land.

For my original purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents philosophical propositions with similar properties: desirable to their proponents but only lightly defensible. The Motte represents the defensible but undesired propositions to which one retreats when hard pressed. (Nicholas Shackel, Practical Ethics blog)

Straw man is in the dictionaries, but the other terms aren’t.

Here’s a tweet with a motte and bailey meme template:

You can also deploy motte and bailey tactics on a t-shirt:

Despite appearances, this gentleman is a sophisticate.

So there you have it: the motte and bailey.

You can read more about it e.g. here and here.

Dunning–Kruger effect

Briefly and roughly, how people who don’t know enough to know how much they don’t know overestimate their competence. Named after the psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. Although they were pioneering in quantifying and analysing it scientifically, theirs wasn’t a new observation:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir’d at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc’d, behold with strange surprise
New, distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleas’d at first, the tow’ring Alps we try,
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;
Th’ eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But those attain’d, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthen’d way,
Th’ increasing prospect tires our wand’ring eyes,
Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise! (Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism)

In the late 5th century BCE, Socrates was perplexed when the Oracle of Delphi said that no one in Greece was wiser than him. He then interrogated various experts and concluded that his wisdom lay in recognising his own ignorance, unlike the poor saps he grilled. This is what has been described as wisdom as epistemic humility.

The effect applies not only to the broadly ignorant, but also to highly educated people overestimating the value of their opinions in unfamiliar disciplines and assuming a sort of omni-expertise.

Trump/Boris/Dom/Hitler/Baron Vladimir Harkonnen hates it when you retweet this…

Please make my tweet go viral, please, I beg of you.

You’re welcome; no need to thank me; fixed that for you

In debate: supposed to read as crushing but reads as peevish and self-satisfied; you can feel a little pinch-faced smirk at the end. Also no longer fresh.

cf. Off you pop, just leave this here, once again for the people at the back, etc.

Ressentiment

‘A vengeful, petty-minded state of being that does not so much want what others have (although that is partly it) as want others to not have what they have … ressentiment is more fully defined as the desire to live a pious existence and thereby position oneself to judge others, apportion blame, and determine responsibility’ (Oxford Reference).

Let that sink in

The equivalent of grabbing someone by the lapels, pulling their face close to yours and speaking to them in urgent tones. Also falls into the ‘instructions included’ category of tweet.

Hector

‘To intimidate by bluster or threats; to domineer over; to bully; to bring or force out of or into something by threats or insolence.’ (OED, transitive verb)

Anger

Anger indicates a weak point … Should your opponent surprise you by becoming particularly angry at an argument, you must urge it with all the more zeal; not only because it is a good thing to make him angry, but because it may be presumed that you have put your finger on the weak side of his case, and that just here he is more open to attack than even for the moment you perceive. (Arthur Schopenhauer, The Art of Always Being Right)

Pecksniffian

Seth Pecksniff is the sanctimonious fraud in Dickens’ novel Martin Chuzzlewit who hides his grasping and cheating nature under a veil of assumed morality. The adjective can describe people or actions (e.g. a Peckniffian manner, tone, sniff, etc). It often implies an unctuous manner as well as hypocrisy.

Pharisaic, pharisaical

Derived from the reputation of the Pharisees, an ancient Jewish sect: ‘emphasizing or observing the letter but not the spirit of religious law; self-righteous; sanctimonious; pretending to be highly moral or virtuous without actually being so; hypocritical’ (Collins).

Uhtcearu

The sorrow which seizes hold in the hours before dawn. Reading people arguing on Twitter can produce something akin to it.

Paul Fishman (Cumbria, January 2020)

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