From Towning to Izikhothane: 7 SA Twitter terms that need to go global

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Izikhothane

I love Twitter for many reasons — in many ways, I’m in a relationship with it. But one of the things I value the most is the insight it has given me into the lives of my fellow human beings. I get to eavesdrop on conversations I’d never normally have the opportunity to hear, and because they’re between people who know each other, they’re more natural — even if they are visible to others, who watch with their express permission (which, when you think of it, is just a little bit weird).

In my line of work, I’d typically have to sit behind one-way glass, balancing a plate of lasagne on my knee, while I watched a focus group in session. Twitter lets me in on a never-ending real-time conversation about what people are doing or interested in at any given time of the day. For someone like me, born and bred in the suburbs in the 1970s, but required to come up with communication strategies that connect with people beyond my immediate frame of reference (like football fans, say, or people who love Dexter), that’s really useful. I like to think of Twitter as a dipstick into the zeitgeist and while it’s not scientific in the way that formal quantitative research is, it’s incredibly useful for picking up on the nuance of discussions. For anyone looking for insights, delivered in a handy format to your timeline every single day, it’s a gift.

I follow over 4 000 accounts on Twitter and don’t filter any of them. I like the chaos, and one of the things you learn from following so many people is that there are distinct differences in some of the conversations between various cultures. It’s not a hard and fast delineation — there’s lots of overlap, for one thing, identity is fluid (despite what politicians have to say about it) and if you really want to get tickbox technical, there are Indian, coloured, Chinese and a myriad other types. But some of the most interesting deviation from standard Twitter terms I’ve seen have come from South Africa, and black South Africa in particular. I don’t think it’s not inaccurate to refer to Black Twitter and White Twitter. In my experience, Black Twitter is a lot more aware that these two worlds exist: I often find myself explaining to my fellow white suburbanites what “towning” is or how Izikhothane turned Ultramel custard into a cultural symbol, and I only know this thanks to Twitter.

So here are some of my favourite words from Black Twitter (with helpful explanations):

1. Towning
I’ve been privileged enough to have creative, speaker and columnist Khaya Dlanga himself explain this term to me. It refers to unprotected sex, and comes from taxi-drivers in East London, who used to say “town, town, town” to commuters. When the suburb of Vincent was built, you had the option of going there first and then to town. So somehow, “town” — getting straight to your destination without going somewhere else first — came to mean sex without a condom.

2. Sidechicks
A mistress. Towning and sidechicks frequently go together (there doesn’t seem to be a male equivalent — almost all the discussion I’ve seen is around men doing the cheating).

3. Izikhothane
This is one of the most fascinating stories from Twitter last year. Izikhothane is a strange township subculture where young men compete for status by wearing lurid designer clothes and shoes and then burning them. (Think 19th century Regency dandies meets District 9.) I first heard of izikhothane when discussion on Twitter exploded after a TV exposé on the phenomenon.

In one of the scenes, young men took mouthfuls of Ultramel custard and spat it out, forever changing the cultural significance of one of South Africa’s favourite brands. Izikhothane then featured in a Nando’s ad and even Ultramel itself has started to embrace the izikhothane phenomenon. You’ll see references to izikhothane on Twitter every day now. The weirdest thing of all? A somewhat obscure subculture went mainstream thanks to TV presenter Debora Patta.

4. Mxm
An expression denoting irritation/ frustration/ eye-rolling, it’s an onomatopoeic rendering of the sound of a tongue clicking. It takes up only three characters, so very useful. I plan to use it more.

5. Tltltl
Another onomatopoeic expression, referring to laughter (the English dandies would have described this as “tittering”).

6. Kwaa!
I had this demonstrated to me while hanging out at the offices of a Johannesburg-based digital agency. It’s a loud laugh, the Black Twitter translation of ROFL.

7. Weaves and hairlines
Weaves are big on Twitter. Bad weaves are even bigger. There’s also the phenomenon of the disappearing hairline. I am very glad that these are problems I will never have personal knowledge of (radio presenter @anele is responsible for driving a lot of the weave discussion, along with Oros — but we’ll leave that for another time).

There are other words — twerking, for instance, which for a while had me convinced that it was a new portmanteau for a form of Twitter intellectual masturbation until I learned the real definition. There are yellow bones and cats (not pictures of pets posted to Instagram) but, like weaves, they’re imports, so lack that all important local flavour. Then we have terms like touch me on my studio, tjatjarag and tendencies — homegrown memes that add to the country’s collective experience and define who’s in on the joke (and who isn’t).

Digital Aromat, you might call all of this mad linguistic creativity. I can’t wait to see what spices up my timeline next.

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