Talk about a frustrating spelling problem. How many English learners have wanted to thump that annoying & useless W right out of the word two? Or at least thump the imagined bozo who “invented” the spelling?
Though the imagined bozo must remain nameless, there is a story behind that bothersome W.
The word two came to English almost before English was English. It’s Proto-Indo-European grandmother is duwo &/or dwo, and left its linguistic progeny all over Europe:
Old Norse: tvau or tveir
Old Frisian & Old Saxon: twene or twa
Old High German: zwein or zwo
Latin & Greek: duo
If we take into account that the letters U, V & W often swap places in the languages of Europe, we start to see that the one common spelling element of all these twos is the U/V/W. Intriguing.
In Modern English, the W seems to have prevailed. We see it in other grandchildren of the Proto-Indo-European duwo or dwo:
twain – a descendant of two’s under-appreciated Old English cousin twegen, twain may have survived in part due to inclusion in the King James Bible. Some have suggested that this variation of two is still around because it was helpful in rhyming poetry or because when used in verbal orders (for instance, aboard a ship) it could not be confused with too or to.
twine – those of you who are curious & fidgety already have tactile knowledge of why twine is related to two – because twine is made up of two fibers twisted together, then possibly two of those twisted again, & so on. As a curious & fidgety child I spent a lot of satisfying time untwisting things & figuring this out sans dictionary.
twist – a comparative latecomer to the language, twist didn’t show up in English until the mid-1300s. Twist first referred to the flat parts of a hinge, but in time came to mean combining two into one, which morphed into our multiple modern understandings of the word.
twin -- like twain & two, this form come to English almost before English was English. It hasn’t changed meaning at all over the centuries; it has only lost its second n (it was originally twinn).
twizzle – this word, meaning to twist, appears to have come from the word twist sometime in the 1780s, giving birth to the amusing term, twizzle stick.
In those two-ish words we’ve borrowed from Latin & Greek, the letter U prevailed:
duo – came to our language from Italian in the 1580s meaning a tune for two voices. After about two centuries duo generalized to refer to any two people (whether singing or not).
dual – entered English in the 1600s straight from Latin, meaning of two or having two parts.
Interestingly, duel can’t claim the same linguistic heritage. Though it seems it ought to have come from the idea of two people fighting, duel actually comes from duellum, an old-fashioned form of the Latin word bellum, or war. It was only through its similarity with all the words above that this particular type of war became associated with two people facing off against one another.
I’m hoping you’ll have something to say in the comments section – either a thought about all this two-ness, or a request to look into some other annoyingly spelled word.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: The OED, Etymonline, The Free Dictionary, &Wordnik
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.