tongue twister


noun

a word or sequence of words difficult to pronounce, especially rapidly, because of alliteration or a slight variation of consonant sounds, as “She sells seashells by the seashore.”

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Origin of tongue twister

First recorded in 1895–1900
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

VOCAB BUILDER

What else does tongue twister mean?

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear—try saying that three times fast. This and other tongue twisters are words or phrases that are difficult to pronounce, often deliberately so and due to lots of similar sounds.

How do you pronounce tongue twister?

[tuhng twis-ter]

Where does tongue twister come from?

Tongue twister is recorded as early as 1855 in a doctor’s account of settlers at Missouri’s Rock River and the native Sioux name for the river, Inyan Reakah—apparently a real twist to the tongues of the white settlers.

Tongue twister spread in the 19th century, notably appearing in the Christian literary magazine The Ladies’ Repository in 1875.

These early examples of tongue twisters simply characterize words or phrases that are mouthfuls. But around this same time, we start to see deliberate tongue twisters emerge—sayings that are intentionally difficult, designed for fun or to help people improve their pronunciation and diction.

In 1855, the same year that the doctor in Missouri was mispronouncing Native American location names, Alexander Melville Bell published Letters and Sounds: An Introduction to English Reading. This work contained one of the most popular tongue twisters: she sells seashells, with by the seashore apparently later tacked on.

Bell called these tricky phrases elocution exercises and alliterative puzzles, not tongue twisters. That specific label—for the likes of Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper-corns and round the rugged rocks the ragged rascals ran to reach the rural races—appears by the 1890s, early 1900s.

When not shared in classrooms and schoolyards, such tongue twisters were published in education supplements and family magazines as a source of good, clean fun, as they remain today.

How is tongue twister used in real life?

Like the early uses of the phrase, a tongue twister can be any word or phrase that is hard to say. Difficult foreign words (Gewürztraminer) or technical terms (denuclearization) are often described as tongue twisters, as are speech errors.

Formal tongue twisters are designed for fun, especially for children. The point of a tongue twister is generally to say it quickly and repeatedly—and laugh at the garble that ends up coming out.

Tongue twisters are also designed to improve our speech, used by speech therapists to help children with their articulation and voice coaches to help actors with their elocution.

More examples of tongue twister:

“I can’t pronounce her last name…Ocasio-Cortez…We’re going to have to give her a little nickname, like O.C….That’s a tongue twister.”
—Jesse Watters quoted by Shira Tarlo, Salon, June, 2018

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

Example sentences from the Web for tongue twister

  • How was this for a tongue-twister—say five hundred and fifty-five francs in French!

    Jimmie Higgins|Upton Sinclair

British Dictionary definitions for tongue twister

tongue twister

noun

a sentence or phrase that is difficult to articulate clearly and quickly, such as Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012