New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley is a frequent user of Not One-Off Britishisms, presumably having picked them up during all the time he spends in London going to plays. In the third paragraph of a review last week of a New York production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, Brantley referred to an actor “called” (instead of “named”) Michael Urie, which led me to turn on my NOOBs-dar. And sure enough one came along just a few paragraphs later:
Any suspense in the plot as to do with anticipating when, or if, the townsfolk will twig onto Ivan’s true identity…
“Twig onto” was unfamiliar to me, but it seemed to have a distinct British feel. Green’s Dictionary of Slang has a long entry for the verb, with definitions and citations dating from the eighteenth century for four different (similar) meanings: “to observe, to watch”; “to understand, to work out”; “to recognize, to expose”; and “to catch sight of, to become aware of.” Interestingly, the dozens of citation almost all use “twig” alone, rather than followed by “onto,” as Brantley has it. For example, from Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: “Brenda had never the agile mind to twig that he was whiling the days between times away with her sister.”
Green’s suggests the word may have been derived from “twick,” meaning “to jerk,” but Stan Carey has (for me) more convincingly argued for a derivation from the Irish “tuig,” meaning “understand.” The argument is bolstered by the fact that the first citation in Green’s (it’s the “observe, watch” meaning) is from the 1754 play The Brave Irishman, by the (Irish) Thomas Sheridan: “Twig his boots.”
Back to the “twig onto” matter, a search for “twigged onto” on Google News yields a mere sixteen hits, from an intriguing variety of locations: the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and India. But “twigged that” pops up 1,030 times, the overwhelming majority from the U.K. The takeway is that Brantley got it wrong, and should give some thought to the proposition that if you’re going to use a Britishism, you should use it correctly.