Dear Word Detective: Where did “twitterpated” come from? I understand it to mean “being quite silly in love, as a teenager.” — Carol Campbell.
That’s a good question, but something just occurred to me. I have a lot of questions too, and you folks might be able to help me out. First up is one that has bothered me since childhood (no kidding): English muffins described on the package as “fork-split.” Does that mean that they’re already “fork-split” (and should thus pull apart easily, which they never do), or that you’re supposed to split them with a fork? I’ve always used a fork to pry them apart, but I can’t stand the feeling that I might have been wasting my time all these years.
I suspect that if “twitterpated” has lately popped up in the popular vernacular, it has at least something to do with the popularity of the social networking internet service called Twitter. Users of the service can send short text messages (called “Tweets”) to a group of friends (or to the entire world) describing exactly what they’re doing at every moment during the day. (At the risk of being labeled anti-social in our Age of Exhibitionism, I cannot imagine a better illustration of the difference between “can” and “should.”)
“Twitterpated,” however, has nothing to do with Twitter, and, in fact, predates the service, which debuted in 2006, by exactly 44 years. We can be certain of the date because “twitterpated” is a word invented by the scriptwriters responsible for the classic Walt Disney full-length cartoon “Bambi,” which appeared in 1942. Early on in the film, Bambi, a young male deer, is conversing with his friends Thumper (a rabbit) and Flower (a skunk) about the odd springtime behavior of the animals around them, who are all pairing off with mates. A passing owl explains that the animals are “twitterpated,” and adds, “Nearly everybody gets twitterpated in the springtime. For example: You’re walking along, minding your own business. You’re looking neither to the left, nor to the right, when all of a sudden you run smack into a pretty face. Woo-woo! You begin to get weak in the knees. Your head’s in a whirl. And then you feel light as a feather, and before you know it, you’re walking on air.” Thus to be “twitterpated” means to be addled, boggled, dazed and confused by infatuation.
Although the Disney writers did invent “twitterpated,” it was not as big a novelty as it might seem. The verb “to twitter” has meant to chirp like a bird since the 14th century, “twitter” itself being an imitation of such a sound. Since the 17th century, “twitter” has also meant “to tremble in anticipation or excitement” or “to long after or desire something or someone.” “Pate” is a very old word for the top of the human head (from the Latin “patina,” dish) or the brain, and such combinations as “addle-pated” (insane) and “empty-pated” (stupid) have been insults for several centuries. So combining “twitter” and “pated” to mean “consumed to the point of distraction and delusion by romantic longing and infatuation” is actually a fairly straightforward addition to a long line of “pated” adjectives.