twin /TWIN/. noun or adjective. One of two born at the same birth. One very like another. As an adjective: two-fold or double.
Listening to Terrence and Dermot—the Brothers Cole—one can’t help but ponder some big questions about nature and nurture and the bonds of twins. But word geeks might also wonder about the term “twin” itself.
Castor and Pollux, Apollo and Artemis, Phobos and Deimos…the list of twins in Greco-Roman mythology (not to mention mythology worldwide) extends into the dozens, evidence of a long-standing fascination with these nearest of siblings. And understandably so given their rarity—identical twins account for less than 1/2 of 1% of births worldwide–and the visceral intrigue many feel when encountering those even rarer twins who are uncannily similar in their behavior as well.
The word twin comes to us via the Old English twinn (TWO N’s) which means “consisting of two, twofold, double, two-by-two). This twin-N’d-twin ultimately goes back to the Proto-Indo-European dwisno-, itself from dwi- (double), and the earliest root dwo- (two). It is from this root that some obviously related modern words are drawn, such as two, duo, duplex and dyad, but others too, including dubious, twilight, twist and biscuit.
The point being: twin is obviously an old world in the plural sense, with many examples dating back to at least the 13th century, but in its singular form—as in Terrence is a twin, or Dermot is Terrence’s twin-brother—it goes back to only the 1600s, replacing the archaic (but charming) twindle and twinling. In both cases the earliest recorded instances belonging to Shakespeare’s plays, the latter in the farce The Merry Wives of Windsor, when Mistress Page observes
…To thy great comfort in this
mystery of ill opinions, here’s the twin brother of thy
We’re all familiar with identical and non-identical (or fraternal) twins, the former the product of fertilization of a single ovum, the latter of two different ones. While identical twins don’t necessarily, as is popularly believed, have identical DNA, non-identical twins are, genetically speaking, no closer to each other than any other siblings.
But human twins come in still different forms as well. Conjoined twins, once commonly called Siamese twins after the famous Chang and Eng brothers, may be joined in many different ways. Chang and Eng, though they loom large in popular culture, were xiphopagustwins (fused at the abdomen and xiphoid, the cartilage in the sternum where some of us have had the misfortune of being punched breathless, aborting their admittedly not-very-promising boxing career). Xiphopagus twins are relatively rare, though not as rare as Janiceps, who have two faces on opposite sides of a single conjoined head or ischopagi, twins joined at the spine and pelvis but facing 180 degrees away from each other. The most common type of conjoined twins is the Thoraco-omphalopagus, fused from the upper to lower chest, usually sharing a heart and thus literally and emotionally heart-rending.
While unconfirmed stories of telepathy and shared consciousness between twins abound, there is no doubt that some twins develop a secret “twin language” in childhood, a phenomenon known as cryptophasia (from the Greek crypto (secret) + phasia (speech)). Cryptophasia is an example of idioglossia (a language spoken by just one or a very few people) except that cryptophasia includes subconscious mirrored physical actions and other characteristics dependent on the close interaction of twins. Cryptophasia is a fascinating phenomenon because, unlike slang and the shared lingo of various groups, these linguistic dyads can evolve into complete languages. Not only that, but these twin languages all share the same structure…but one that is unique to them. This is infinitely intriguing because the development of this kind of language presumably provides some insight into the way in which the earliest, long lost human language was formed, insight that would otherwise only be possible through impossibly unethical studies using enforced isolation of the subjects.
Continuing the journey into twins and language, I can’t leave out the phenomenon of etymological twins, or distinct words that derive from the same source through different routes. For the linguistic nerds out there, these can be concisely called cognates within the same language.
Also called doublets, etymological twins can in fact come in triplets (or more) which, coincidentally, mirrors the history of the word “twin” itself, which at one time could refer to three, four or even more children born at the same time, as in a 1606 registry entry in which “three Twines, John, Sara, and Margeret, the sonne and daughters of Liby Strydwicke” were baptized. Etymological twins are most common in English because of the size of its vocabulary and the significant interactions it has had with other languages, from which many doublets are derived. Doublets usually refer to, and are most interesting, when their meanings diverge. Thus in the list of words I mentioned earlier that derive from the root dwo-, two and duo are technically doublets, but not particularly interesting, whereas the etymological twins cattle and capital (not to mention cadet and caddie!) derive from the root kaput- (head), creating a much more interesting relationship. Or to stay with the bovine theme, cow and beef are etymological twins, both coming from the root gwou- (ox, bull), but cow comes to us from the Old English and Germanic language while beef has Old French and Latin roots.
While I’m at it, a few more interesting twins:
For obvious reasons, twins play distinctive parts in fictional creations of all kinds from Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia to Fred and George Weasley, Mario and Luigi, the Shining Twins and (spoiler alert!) Dr. Evil and Austin Powers. But my favorite literary twins—ignoring the strange identical but non-identical Viola and Sebastian in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night—have to be Esthappen and Rahel in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, a dazzling, time-shifting and inexplicably controversial novel that everyone should experience.
In science, as a thought experiment, and as a theme of science fiction, there is the Twin Paradox in which identical twins are separated: one making a near-light-speed journey into space, the other remaining on earth. Due to relativity and time dilation, when the traveling twin returns, she will appear younger to her earth-bound sister. But due to relative perspectives, from the perspective of the traveler, her sister on earth will be younger. In other words, the traveler is both younger and older than her sister at the same tome. The Twin paradox apparently resolves in some way I can’t get my mind around and don’t want to talk about because, as Old Joe tells Young Joe in the film Looper, “if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it.”
In politics—and inevitably business—in an attempt to encourage friendship and cultural interchange after the global fracturing of World War II, Europe introduced town twinning and twin towns, commonly called sister cities in the United States and sometimes friendship cities elsewhere. The first twinned towns in the US were Toledo, Ohio and Toledo, Spain in 1931 and these sibling cities have since become common, including well-known examples such as Washington D.C. and Tokyo City and less well known (but perhaps more important to local listeners) Fairbanks’s sister cities in Monbetsu, Japan, and Yakutsk, Russia…just two of eight purported sisters to our small city listed in a Wikipedia article that very much needs the requested additional verification.
Finally, I must thank the listener who hails from the Twin Cities in the United States—Minneapolis-Saint Paul, not the earliest pair known as twin cities but the one that needs no qualifiers—who encouraged me to muse a bit on the word “twin” itself for this show.
For lashings of links about the twinnish subjects in today’s episode—and to listen to any Katexic Clippings WORD at your leisure—point your favorite browser to katexic.com/kuac