Wednesday, 16 March 2011


Over-60s in London are entitled to a Freedom Pass, which gives free travel on all buses, underground, overground and trams, and on the Docklands Light Railway. It also gives free travel on National Rail services within London, but only after the morning rush hour is over. A “twirly” is supposedly an older person who tries to use their free travel pass on rail services before 09:30.

“Twirly” is a contraction of “too early”, because bearers of Freedom Passes are supposed to crowd around the ticket barrier just before half past nine, waiting to enter and asking “Am I too early?”

I have seen and heard several mentions of this term recently, though I don’t think I have ever heard it in use (as opposed to mention).

In any case there is something of a phonetic problem with it. The general rule in English phonetics is that WEAK u (ʊ) can be compressed to w before a following vowel, but that strong cannot. Furthermore, even weak u can undergo this compression only if the following vowel is itself weak. So (in my kind of English) there is nothing awkward about twəˈraɪv to arrive if suitably embedded in a sentence, or twɪkˈspləʊd to explode. However it would feel wrong to say twiːt instead of tuˈiːt to eat or twɑːsk instead of tu ˈɑːsk to ask, because in those cases the vowel following the compression site is strong. It would also feel wrong to say twɪɡˈzɔːstɪŋ instead of tuː ɪɡˈzɔːstɪŋ too exhausting, because too — unlike to — has no weak form and is therefore not a candidate for compression. It follows that ˈtwɜːli fails on two counts: (i) because the initial ɜː of early is a strong vowel, and (ii) because it involves too not to.

I would claim that nobody compresses too or two, because nobody has a weak form for them. And for people who shun the tu prevocalic weak form of to in favour of generalizing to all unstressed positions there will be no compression of to either.

[There is a complicating factor here. In some kinds of RP strong tense can undergo smoothing to a laxer ʊ even when stressed, as in ˈtuː əˈklɒk → ˈtʊ əˈklɒk two o’clock. But this does not entrain the possibility of compression. Compare two o’clock (no compression, always three syllables) with to a clock (can be compressed, potentially two syllables).]

The on-line Urban Dictionary, always entertaining, offers several definitions for twirly: not only the one we are discussing here but also a number of others, including indelicate ones supported (if that is the right word) by implausible fragments of dialogue illustrating their supposed use.

I hope this posting wasn’t twʌnɪkˈsaɪtɪŋ. (Actually, it can’t have been. Now you know why.)


  1. I hadn't heard of this usage, but funnily enough it's a pun that had occurred to me, but I hadn't found an occasion to try it out on anyone. Of course, I can't now, not now that I know it would violate a general rule of English phonetics.

  2. I'm pretty sure I heard this some years ago — as an alleged expression, that is. It has always struck me as a joke, not a natural development.

    What makes the joke almost plausible is that the word too is, in this unusual context, almost entirely redundant. Am I early? would do just as well.

  3. There is an old, old riddle:

    Q: Why is five in the morning like a pig's tail?
    A: Because it's twirly.

  4. @John Maidment: a Noel Coward invention am I right ?

  5. @Anonymous

    I'm afraid I don't know.

  6. In a song called "has anybody seen our ship", N.Coward does crack a very similar joke: "Why is getting up at 6 o'clock in the morning like a pig's tail ?", to which he himself replies "twirly" [twɜːli], in anticipation of J.Wells article. Interesting to note that Coward's works always provide food for thought.

  7. Hearing Noel Coward in my head, I think he might actually say [ˈtwɜːlɪ] for "too early". That might even have been why he came up with the pun.

    As for "two o'clock" and "to a clock", I cannot convince myself that I always have the three syllables JW requires in "two o'clock". For me the allophones of "two o'clock" are roughly ˈtʊu̯ əˈklɒk , ˈtʊ.əˈklɒk, and ˈtʊəˈklɒk, and the allophones of "to a clock" are tʊ.əˈklɒk, tʊəˈklɒk and twəˈklɒk, unless of course I am saying ˈtʊu̯ əklɒk to stress the "to". So "two o'clock" and "to a clock" are actually homophonous with respect to two of those allophones, the only difference being the suprasegmentals.

    What is more, using the representation "tour clock" with and without stress on the "tour" I find that that difference is not enough for me to reliably tell them apart. I strongly suspect a good few other RP speakers would find this too, but I have not had a chance to test this suspicion.

  8. I'm reminded of a friend of mine who compresses Let's go eat to [skwiːt] (well, [skwit], because we're Americans without contrastive vowel length).

  9. Yes: couldn't "twirly" be just a jocular form? Probably a parody of an over-anxious, or very hasty, pronouncing style. Not a genuine phonetic development.

  10. @ Tonio: Surely that's a facetious pronunciation.

  11. But doesn’t anyone agree that Noel Coward was a paradigm case of precisely those things? Jocularity, hyperactivity, clipped-to-the-quick non-genuine phonetic developments, and facetiousness. That was my point about the likelihood that he might quite routinely say [ˈtwɜːlɪ] for "too early".