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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

tween

(1990’s | advertese | “pre-teen,” “person at that awkward age,” “kid”)

A word we owe to advertisers. It bubbled up in the late 1980’s, mainly in marketing publications, although it appeared in the mainstream press now and then, most notably in a USA Today series inaugurated in September 1989, “The Terrible Tweens.” (Royal Caribbean seems to have been an early adopter, offering both “Teen” and “Kid/Tween” programs on their cruises by the end of the 1980’s.) It took a few years to mature, but the word was solidly established within ten years and has become widely recognized and understood.

The origin of the term appears uncomplicated. The resemblance to “teen” is obvious (it’s why we don’t call them “twixts”), and the reference to the time be”tween” young child and teenager is catchy. It was defined as “those between 8 and 12 years old” in the Washington Post (January 24, 1988), which is, I suspect, about how the term would be generally understood now. Maybe 9, maybe 13, but since tweenhood may be a state of mind that need not correspond with precise ages, we should expect a little fuzziness. Some definitions showed more variation in the beginning; for example, a report on McDonalds’ advertising strategy (November 9, 1988) explored its practice of marketing to subgroups including “‘tweens’ (9-to-16 year olds),” while an article in Adweek less than six months earlier gave a range of “10-15.” U.S. News (April 1989) confidently gave “9 to 15.” You could get pretty much any endpoints you wanted, but the core of prepubescents and beginner pubescents remained constant. The traditional preference for 12 or 13 as the beginning of the teenage years seems to have reasserted itself, and there’s much less tendency to incorporate full-blown teenagers into tweendom nowadays. Sometimes the word was spelled with an initial apostrophe in the beginning; sometimes you saw “tweenage” or “tweenager.” It’s a good thing the variant didn’t catch on, or we would all be heartily sick of hearing about Justin Bieber, tweenage idol.

We may see this term simply as the product of the advertiser’s restless, relentless pursuit of the bottom dollar. Whenever defenseless spending money is discovered in a sub-group of the population, the sharks of commerce circle, seeking to engross a healthy chunk of it for themselves. Somebody found out that pre-teens — some of them, anyway — had a certain amount of money, so they had to be defined, categorized, converted to data, and appealed to. Just another demographic in an ever more precisely demarcated consumer universe. Pre-teens’ embrace of social media has lately given the youngsters a new kind of consumer power (and new ways to get into trouble).

The word soon elbowed its way into the parents’ lexicon, adding one more milepost to a track stretching from colic and the terrible twos to empty nests and fledglings returning to fill them. It’s one more group to worry about, one more place the wheels can come off the cart — according to a world view in which childhood and youth are recognized as a succession of traumas. If we hope to understand our children, we must learn about the special characteristics of tweens, their developmental stages and kinks, their symptoms and syndromes, and how not to ruin them utterly (hint: anything you say or do may doom them to a bitter, ineffectual adulthood). The same urge to dissect ever more finely, to understand ever more minutely, is at work among parents as it is among advertisers.

In 1988, Polaroid (Polaroid!) offered its Cool Cam to the youth market (PR Newswire, February 19, 1988), “designed especially for trendy ‘tweens'” (defined here as “the latest demographic label for the 9- to 14-year-old set”). The “tween,” understood as another subgroup of the youth population, was very new then. Nowadays cascades of carefully orchestrated opportunities to spend money confront tweens at every turn, including a fashion designer for tweens who is herself a tween (she promises “blood, sweat, and glitter”). They have money, they have Twitter, and they know how to use them. The rest of us had better stand back.

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