Understanding Basic Twitter Lingo & Slang

Let's demystify Twitter for all the newbies

Tweet button on keyboard
Twitter Lingo.

Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

For Twitter newbies, it can be a challenge figuring out how to properly reply to people, use hashtags, and carry on conversations. Much of the confusion stems from the sheer amount of jargon found on the popular social network. Over the years, the folks at Twitter have worked to demystify all that lingo, but for many users, it still may not be enough.

Here we've compiled a starter course in basic Twitter slang so that you can understand the most basic functions.

Getting to Know Twitter

When Twitter launched in 2006, there was no retweet button—just a bunch of users trying to fit as much of an update into 140 characters as they could. The choice of 140 characters came about because Twitter was initially based on SMS mobile messaging, and 140 characters were the limit at the time.

Those constraints are what eventually inspired the community-made RT (retweet), the MT (modified tweet), hashtags (#), quote tweets, and several other shorteners. In 2017, Twitter doubled the number of characters allowed to 280. 

Using Basic Twitter Lingo

If you want to tweet like a pro, you've got to get a handle on how the microblogging platform operates. Here are some of the most often used terms and symbols you'll encounter and what they mean:

  • The @ sign: Think of this as you do an email address. The @ sign precedes a username or "handle" whenever you want that user to see a tweet. If you want to mention another user so that they (hopefully) see your tweet, you must include the @ sign.
  • Mention: A mention is simply when you or someone else mentions a user or handle with the corresponding @ sign. When someone mentions you in a Tweet, it might look like this: I spent the day at the park with @[username], we had a picnic!
  • Reply: A simply reply to any tweet. Replies used to include the @ sign and handle of the original Tweet. Replies used to include the @ mention in the text of the reply; now they are listed above the text.
  • The hashtag or # sign: When the pound symbol is added to a word, it turns it into a link—a hashtag. That link automatically creates a feed of Tweets from anyone using the same hashtag. Hashtags are used for fun and are also helpful for coordinating conversations or topics around a given event or topic.
  • Follow: When you are "following" someone, you are subscribed to their Tweets. Unless they've marked their profile as "private" (you can turn this on in your settings), you will be able to see all Tweets sent by this person in your main news feed. In the same way, anyone who follows you can see your Tweets. Most Twitter accounts are public and can be seen by anyone, but if you want someone's Tweets to show up in your main home feed, you have to follow them first.
  • Direct Message or DM: If you are following someone, and they are following you back, you are then allowed to Direct Message ("DM") them. These are the only truly private messages between two users on Twitter.
  • RT or Retweet: When a user wants to re-share something you've posted they'll retweet it. A retweet may be a regular Retweet, where the entire message is posted to your feed without anything added, or a Quote Tweet, which allows you to add a comment that appears on your feed along with the original tweet.
  • #FF or #FollowFriday: One of the first popular hashtags was #FollowFriday, sometimes shortened to #FF. This is used in a Tweet means to shout out the people who you enjoy following the most.
  • HT or Hat Tip: You'll encounter the letters "HT" when one user is complimenting another user, or giving them recognition for something they Tweeted.
  • Fail Whale: This graphic, containing a white whale being lifted out of the water by birds, was designed by artist Yiying Lu and tells you when the site is over capacity. Back in 2007 when the site was experiencing growing pains, the Fail Whale was a daily occurrence. These days the error shows up very rarely, but early-adopters still remember what it felt like to loathe and love this character at the same time.

Mastering Twitter is difficult because messages are limited to 280 characters and often include markers, symbols, and lingo that can confuse newbies. However, with a bit of patience, and some exploration, the social sharing site will become much easier to use. And once you get a hang for how it works, you'll wonder why other social platforms don't utilize the same approach.