Thursday, October 9, 2014



Talk about a frustrating spelling problem. How many English learners have wanted to thump that annoying & useless W right out of the word two? Or at least thump the imagined bozo who “invented” the spelling?

Though the imagined bozo must remain nameless, there is a story behind that bothersome W.

The word two came to English almost before English was English. It’s Proto-Indo-European grandmother is duwo &/or dwo, and left its linguistic progeny all over Europe:

Old Norse: tvau or tveir
Old Frisian & Old Saxon: twene or twa
Dutch: twee
Old High German: zwein or zwo
German: zvei
Gothic: twai
Latin & Greek: duo

If we take into account that the letters U, V & W often swap places in the languages of Europe, we start to see that the one common spelling element of all these twos is the U/V/W. Intriguing.

In Modern English, the W seems to have prevailed. We see it in other grandchildren of the Proto-Indo-European duwo or dwo:

twain a descendant of two’s under-appreciated Old English cousin twegen, twain may have survived in part due to inclusion in the King James Bible. Some have suggested that this variation of two is still around because it was helpful in rhyming poetry or because when used in verbal orders (for instance, aboard a ship) it could not be confused with too or to.

twine – those of you who are curious & fidgety already have tactile knowledge of why twine is related to two – because twine is made up of two fibers twisted together, then possibly two of those twisted again, & so on. As a curious & fidgety child I spent a lot of satisfying time untwisting things & figuring this out sans dictionary.

twist – a comparative latecomer to the language, twist didn’t show up in English until the mid-1300s. Twist first referred to the flat parts of a hinge, but in time came to mean combining two into one, which morphed into our multiple modern understandings of the word.

twin -- like twain & two, this form come to English almost before English was English. It hasn’t changed meaning at all over the centuries; it has only lost its second n (it was originally twinn).

twizzle – this word, meaning to twist, appears to have come from the word twist sometime in the 1780s, giving birth to the amusing term, twizzle stick.

In those two-ish words we’ve borrowed from Latin & Greek, the letter U prevailed:

duo – came to our language from Italian in the 1580s meaning a tune for two voices. After about two centuries duo generalized to refer to any two people (whether singing or not).

dual – entered English in the 1600s straight from Latin, meaning of two or having two parts.

Interestingly, duel can’t claim the same linguistic heritage. Though it seems it ought to have come from the idea of two people fighting, duel actually comes from duellum, an old-fashioned form of the Latin word bellum, or war. It was only through its similarity with all the words above that this particular type of war became associated with two people facing off against one another.

I’m hoping you’ll have something to say in the comments section – either a thought about all this two-ness, or a request to look into some other annoyingly spelled word.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: The OED, Etymonline, The Free Dictionary, & Wordnik


  1. Hey, Charlie, thought I made a comment here but now can't find it. I'll come back and see if it's posted.

    1. Ah ha. I see what happened. Here's what I said more or less. I like twee. Might be easier than two. "Twee of my friends saw Gone Girl the other night." But we might then confuse twee with three. I'm no help here. Great stuff on your blog and that's what makes it so unique and fun. Cheers and keep it up. Paul

  2. I'd like to know how the name Dwayne (or Duane, for you Frenchies) fits in with all this two-ness. Seems like it should. Maybe describing a person (guy-type) of two minds.
    Yours dually,

  3. Ahoy Anne, Paul & Mr. Wurst,
    Thanks for joining me in my two-fascination. As to Duane/Dwayne, names are an interesting study. Some seem to be really easy to research, & are. Some seem easy to research, but the findings can't be substantiated, & other names are simply invented. I'll see what I can find out about Duane/Dwayne.

  4. Charlie, what I've always wondered was about words like psalm and gnome. Just why are the "p" and the "g" silent, anyway? Seems to me there's altogether too much silence going in in the English language! Or is that two much silence??

  5. Hey Susan - great ones to look into. Thanks for a potential future post or two. As to silence in English, one of my favorite pieces of advice would support more silence in the language, from a R. N. Peck middle grade book called A Day No Pigs Would Die -- "Never miss the opportunity to keep your mouth shut."