Understanding Basic Twitter Lingo & Slang

A simple guide to basic Twitter lingo and slang

Tweet button on keyboard
Twitter Lingo. Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

Back in 2008, I wrote an article a popular social media news blog called How to Get Your Mom on Twitter. In those days, it was almost laughable to imagine someone you actually knew would join Twitter, especially your mom, so the article was mostly meant in fun.

The reason why it was more laughable then than present day is because back then, Twitter was nothing but lingo. It was all lingo. We were making up a language that Jack Dorsey (@jack) couldn't even keep up with -- until he did.

The ability to reply to people, use hashtags functionally and carry on a conversation wasn't as obvious at all. There were no tutorials, there were barely even FAQs.

For such a simple network, its brevity can be confusing. I'm still giving my mom Twitter lessons on the weekends and through text messages. No matter how many times I try to explain what the difference is between a hashtag and an @ symbol, she still doesn't understand why I don't answer when she hashtags me. She really wants to learn though, she loved AOL chatrooms and I've promised her that it's sort of like that.

Over the years, the folks behind Twitter have gone through great lengths to demystify the jargon and lingo used on Twitter. The reason is because that even though the network has a few hundred million active users, there are even more inactive accounts. Those people showed up, got confused, and they left.

If you're a new user to Twitter, I don't want you to leave!

So, here's a starter course in basic Twitter lingo so that you can understand some of the most basic acronyms and functions of the world's most popular micro-messaging platform next to text messaging.

Getting To Know Twitter

The history of Twitter begins with its informal debut in 2006. At that time, 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 limit of 140 characters actually occurred because Twitter was supposed to be an SMS mobile phone based system and 140 characters was the limit at the time.

Those constraints are what eventually inspired the community-made RT (retweet), the MT (modified tweet) hashtags (#) and several other shorteners.

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. And that requires familiarizing yourself with the lingo rolling through its landscape. 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. For example:

Mention: 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: When someone replies to your Tweet, or they simply want to talk to you publicly, they'll start the Tweet with your username, like this: @username thanks so much for sharing that article, it was great!

Public reply: When someone uses the reply method to reach out to you, by putting your username at the front of their Tweet, they make that post semi-private. Since it's a reply, the only people who will see it are you and the people who follow both of you. To make it public, some users will add a period before the username, like this: .@username just shared a slice of pizza with me, but shhh, I'm on a diet!

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 wildly popular at events to orchestrate a conversation between all of the attendees. People will quote speakers and comment on presentations and all of the attendees can watch the feed to see what people are doing and saying.

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 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. They may do it natively through Twitter's interface, or they may do it manually by adding "RT" to the tweet.

MT or Modified Tweet. Similar to a retweet, but with modifications. This occurs most often when a user needs to shorten the Tweet in order to add commentary and still squeeze it all in within 140 characters.

#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 rarely, but early-adopters still remember what it felt like to loathe and love this character at the same time.

The grasp of using Twitter can be elusive because it not only limits messages to 140 characters but employs a number of markers which confuse newbies. However, with a bit of patience, and some exploration, the social sharing site becomes much easier to use. And once you get how it works, you'll wonder why other social platforms don't utilize the same approach.