tongue twister

[tuhng twis-ter]

What 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.

Related words:

  • How much wood could a wood chuck chuck?
  • nursery rhymes
  • Peter Piper
  • red leather, yellow leather
Examples of tongue twister


Examples of tongue twister
..."Flacid phallus. Its like a tongue twister. Say it. Say flacid phallus. Do you even know what it means? Flacid phallus."...
@SpacedEK, June, 2018
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
Josephine Dodge Daskam Bacon has an apoplectic cow. This is not merely a "tongue twister" like "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers." It is the serious statement of a significant fact.
Joyce Kilmer, The New York Times, August, 1915  

Where does tongue twister come from?

tongue twister

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 spreads in the 19th century, notably appearing in the Christian literary magazine The Ladies’ Repository in 1875 … how fancy.

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 butchering 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.


Who uses tongue twister?

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.

Tongue twister occasionally has a kinkier side, referring to particularly acrobatic cunnilingus.

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