In search of T.W. Earp and the origin of ‘twerp’

In a guest post, Oxford English Dictionary historian and lexicographer Peter Gilliver sheds new light on one of the most curious characters to cross the young J.R.R. Tolkiens path

Peter Gilliver

The classical scholar E.R. Dodds, who matriculated at Oxford a year after Tolkien, wrote in his autobiography Missing Persons: ‘If on leaving Oxford I had been asked which of my English contemporaries were most likely to achieve fame as writers I should have named without hesitation T.W. Earp and Aldous Huxley.’ He would surely have been surprised to learn that the fate of achieving fame as a writer was to fall, not upon Earp, but upon his Exeter College contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien. But who was this figure who showed such promise?

Caricature of Earp at the Oxford Union (Oxford Chronicle 5 Dec 1919)

Thomas Earp as Oxford Union president (Oxford Chronicle, 5 December 1919)

I first encountered Thomas Wade Earp (1892–1958) in what I imagine is the most common way for people to encounter him today: a couple of brief mentions in Tolkien’s letters. To his fiancée Edith in 1914, Tolkien writes: ‘I went and had an interesting talk with that quaint man Earp I have told you of and introduced him (to his great delight) to the ‘Kālevalā’ the Finnish ballads.’ In a 1944 passage, Tolkien tells his son Christopher that he probably met the poet Roy Campbell around 1919–21 ‘when he was a lad, as he lived in O[xford] at the time when we lived in Pusey Street (rooming with Walton the composer, and going about with T.W. Earp, the original twerp …)’.

The second of these references points to the other way in which Earp is likely to come to people’s attention: as the person whose initials and surname are thought to be the origin of the word twerp, denoting a silly or annoying person. The current entry for twerp in the Oxford English Dictionary not only quotes the 1944 Tolkien letter but also quotes Campbell himself in 1957 as saying Earp ‘gave the English language the word twirp, really twearp, because of the Goering-like wrath he kindled in the hearts of the rugger-playing stalwarts at Oxford, when he was president of the Union, by being the last, most charming, and wittiest of the “decadents”’. The entry also notes that Earp arrived at Oxford in 1911, which is relevant because it predates the earliest evidence cited, a 1925 slang glossary. Despite this, the dictionary opts for caution, simply describing the word as ‘Of uncertain origin’.

twerp in Oxford English Dictionary 1986

The Oxford English Dictionary entry for twerp, published in 1986

As an OED lexicographer as well as a Tolkien fan, perhaps it was inevitable that at some point I would begin to wonder about T.W. Earp in two different ways.

Firstly: how much truth is there in the suggestion that the word twerp originates in the ‘wrath … of the rugger-playing stalwarts at Oxford’ (amongst whom, at least initially, Tolkien could be numbered)?

And secondly: who was this man, who evidently created a lasting impression in the minds of at least three of his Oxford contemporaries, but who is now largely forgotten; and how much did Tolkien actually know him?

I’d like to look at these two questions in turn.

*

The OED entry for twerp is of course not the last word on the subject; the entry has not been significantly revised since it first appeared in Volume IV of the Supplement to the OED in 1986. When it does come up for revision, extensive research – of a kind that has only become possible in the last twenty years or so – will be carried out, and among other things this will involve seeking out the earliest available evidence for the word. It will also, of course, take advantage of research that has already been carried out by other scholars.

One well-known instance of the word which allegedly takes its history back to the First World War – namely its use in the popular wartime song ‘Bless ’Em All’ – has been investigated by the veteran slang lexicographer Jonathan Lighter. Although it seems likely that the song may have been written down by the songwriter Fred Godfrey in 1917 – possibly based on a song that had been in circulation among servicemen long before that – no version of the lyrics, and no recording, dating earlier than 1940 (when it was popularized by George Formby) has been traced. And there is some evidence to suggest that the key line – ‘There’s many an airman just finishing his time, there’s many a twerp signing on’ – may have been introduced as part of a rewrite of what had originally been a rather more ribald song (in which the first word of the title was often replaced with something much stronger than ‘bless’) to make it more acceptable for public consumption.

So far, so inconclusive. But my own private research has turned up some definite evidence that the word was in circulation before the OED’s current first date of 1925; and the evidence points fairly clearly to an American origin, and – perhaps disappointingly – away from a connection with T.W. Earp.

My earliest evidence of all (so far) is to be found in the 1917 issue of Corks and Curls, the student yearbook of the University of Virginia, in an anonymous comic piece entitled ‘Mr Dooley at the Corner’. At one point Mr Dooley (apparently Irish) says ‘Dammed if ye ain’t a hell iv a p’lite twerp!’ (In fact I recently discovered that the same quotation was independently discovered by another word sleuth, Stephen Goranson.)

Other instances of the word from the next few years in American student publications suggest that it had some currency as a piece of student slang. (It may have been given wider circulation by Cole Porter: in 1921 the Harvard Lampoon published a poem entitled ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding’ – another of the countless parodies of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha – which seems to have come from his pen, and in which a frustrated Hiawatha lambastes an incompetent organ-blower as ‘Little Twirp, the Chronic Nit Wit’. Furthermore, after some fairly extensive searching, I have failed to turn up any instances of twerp (or twirp, or twearp) in Oxford – or indeed British – sources earlier than 1925.

twirp in Harvard Lampoon's Hiawatha's Wedding (1921)

Harvard Lampoon’s ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding’ may have given twirp wider circulation from 1921

So what are we to make of the fact that two men who knew T.W. Earp at Oxford before 1920 both associated him with the word? Tolkien will have met Earp at Exeter College in 1911, the year in which both men matriculated at the college; Roy Campbell met him shortly after arriving in Oxford for the first time in early 1919. At what point did Earp begin to be referred to as a twerp?

The evidence points to the word being a piece of pre-existing American slang, which at some point made its way across the Atlantic, to be picked up by some Oxford wit who noticed how it could be made to fit Earp’s name, and thus become a stick with which the University’s sporting hearties could beat him. In the absence of proof of its currency before 1917, the window during which twerp could have been brought to Oxford while Earp was still a student – he left in 1920 – is narrow. There were certainly American students at Oxford – including some at Exeter – under the Rhodes Scholarship scheme who could have brought their slang with them. But the lack of positive evidence so far (and I have looked quite hard!) is puzzling. Perhaps the research that eventually goes into the revision of the OED entry will turn up something conclusive.

*

JRR Tolkien (far left) and (far right) TW Earp in a detail from the 1911 Exeter College matriculation photograph

Tolkien and Earp, left and right, flank other Exeter College students at matriculation in 1911 (digital image: Neil Holford)

Thomas Wade Earp was born on 26 Aug 1892, the son of the prosperous Newark brewer (and civic dignitary) Thomas Earp. He was born in London although his parents were at that time resident in Newark, where his father had just been elected Mayor for the second time. He was educated at Magnus Grammar School, where his father had been chairman of the governors and a major benefactor; in 1911 he won a scholarship to Exeter College, making him an exact contemporary of Tolkien. Both men lost no time in becoming active in Exeter College’s various societies and clubs, and their paths will have crossed constantly, not least as they were (initially) both studying classics. John Garth is probably right that ‘The two must have disagreed about almost everything’, but it does at least seem that they were interested in some of the same subjects, most notably literature; and by the summer of 1914 they were on sufficiently good terms to dine and socialize together (the signatures of both men appear on a menu card for a ‘Chequers Clubbe’ dinner on 18 June and on Tolkien’s copy of the programme for Exeter College’s Sexcentenary Ball on 23 June).

And now I come to my second question: who was Earp, and what was the nature and the extent of Tolkien’s dealings with him?

As soon as I began to investigate him, he quickly emerged from the shadows as a vivid figure, who may well not have been Tolkien’s cup of tea, but whom he may well have had good reason to cultivate, and who struck their contemporaries as someone marked out for fame – even if he failed to fulfil this early promise. In writing about him here I earnestly hope that I can raise his stock, and maybe persuade someone to find out (and write) more about him.

John Garth is one of the few Tolkien scholars who has written anything about him at all, and I draw here both on his notes on Earp in Tolkien at Exeter College and on research notes which he has generously shared with me. I have also found useful material in Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond’s indispensable J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide.

Earp (circled) and Tolkien (hands on vine) at their college’s sexcentenary celebrations in 1914 (Exeter College)

But of course the summer of 1914 also saw the world changed utterly with the outbreak of war. By the time both men had returned to college in the autumn, Tolkien was preparing for war service; Earp, by contrast, would not be enlisting, and in fact seems to have contrived to continue studying at Exeter throughout the war.

There are various accounts of how he managed this; according to one, he ‘fooled the Conscription Board by getting into a very hot bath just before the session and presenting himself in a parboiled state which baffled the examiners’; according to another, he exercised his ‘unique talent for twitching his eyebrows, wrinkling his nose, and waggling his ears … to such horrifying effect that the Tribunal found him unfit for service’.

Quite apart from his escaping military service, there were also the college authorities to be satisfied, and here there is another puzzle: how did Earp contrive to remain an undergraduate for nearly a decade (so that Tolkien could return to Oxford after the war and find him still in residence, still presiding over various college societies)? It has been alleged that he repeatedly – possibly as many as eleven times – failed to pass the scripture examination known as ‘Divvers’, which was a prerequisite for graduating; but it seems distinctly odd that Exeter College allowed him to do so without sanction. (A few years later John Betjeman would be sent down from Oxford by his college after failing for only the second time.) Further investigation in the Exeter College archives is needed.

Whatever the explanation, Earp was able not merely to establish himself on the Oxford undergraduate ‘scene’, but to maintain his position over an extended period. And his position was unquestionably a literary one. Besides his regular contributions to Exeter College’s various literary societies, he was becoming a published poet, with four poems included in a 1914 anthology of student writing entitled Oxford Poetry. Further poems appeared in the successor volume Oxford Poetry 1915, of which he was now a co-editor – and which included, alongside a further six of his own poems, Tolkien’s ‘Goblin Feet’, one of his earliest published pieces. He went on to co-edit several subsequent volumes of the series.

During this time he also became a good friend of fellow undergraduates Aldous Huxley and Philip Heseltine (later better known as the composer Peter Warlock); and in 1916 Huxley introduced him to the exotic artistic milieu of Garsington Manor, where the legendary Ottoline Morrell held court, and where such figures as D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Siegfried Sassoon, and various members of the Bloomsbury Group were regular guests. The same year saw the publication of Earp’s own anthology Contacts, and other poems: an impressive achievement for an undergraduate.

Contacts and Other Poems by T.W.  Earp (Oxford: Blackwell 1916)

It’s clear enough that Earp had the knack of ‘getting on’ in the literary world; and, as such, one can see why Tolkien, who hoped to achieve something with his own poetry, might seek to cultivate his company, notwithstanding the huge differences between the two men in outlook and perspective. For Earp was clearly a ‘literary man’ of a very different cut from Tolkien.

A recollection of the future novelist and publisher Leonard Strong, from 1916, gives a flavour of his person and personality: ‘a young man who was already a legend in the university. A lock of long, soft, fair hair drooped over his forehead, seeming to come halfway down his thin pale face. From under the lock two dark eyes looked out, the liveliest, most alert, most humorous eyes I had seen. This was T.W. Earp, focus and centre of undergraduate literary life.’

His voice, it seems, was also memorable: a striking number of his contemporaries referred to it as ‘high’ and ‘quavering’, and some years later Dylan Thomas even christened him ‘Flute’, a foil to his own ‘Snout’.

Strong also recalls how Earp ‘made me a member of a group which met once a week to read aloud what they had been writing, and exchange criticisms’ – showing that this form of ‘writerly colloquium’ was to be found in Oxford decades before the Inklings, even if Tolkien might have run a mile from this particular incarnation of it.

Earp himself was very conscious of not ‘fitting in’ to the heartier side of life at Exeter College. Some autobiographical notes he made in the 1940s refer to his ‘living in pre-Raphaelite ambience’ among ‘queer characters’. The notes recall Earp being given the mock-honorific post of ‘Public Orator’ in the college’s undergraduate body, the Stapledon Society ‘as an excuse for being ragged’ – that is, made boisterous fun of, something that was meted out especially to aesthetes. More bitterly, these notes refer to the ‘brutality of “Freshers’ Port” and rags’. Freshers’ Port was evidently some kind of alcohol-fuelled initiation. ‘Rags’ (OED: ‘a boisterous prank or practical joke’) were the kind of activities that Tolkien, of course, engaged in when venting his more boisterous side.

1919 issues of the shortlived modernist Coterie magazine, co-edited by the precocious Earp while he was still at Oxford

By the end of the war Earp was firmly established as an Oxford ‘literary type’, and also as something of a literary entrepreneur. The annual volumes of Oxford Poetry – with Earp as co-editor – continued to appear; another volume of his own poetry, The Gate of Bronze, appeared early in 1919; and the same year saw the publication of the first three issues of Coterie, a self-consciously modernist literary magazine, published in London but with Earp and other Oxford figures on its editorial board, which during its short life (the seventh and last issue appeared in late 1920) managed to attract contributions from an impressive array of writers including Eliot, Huxley, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, Herbert Read, and Edmund Blunden. Nor was Coterie his first publishing venture: in 1916 he and Huxley had launched – using some of Earp’s own money – the Palatine Review, which lasted about as long as Coterie. His contemporary Eric Whelpton recalls him around this time as ‘the uncrowned king of the undergraduates […] his rooms in Beaumont Street had become the port of call of many writers, poets and painters passing through Oxford.’

He had also assigned himself another role, and one that would have some significance for Tolkien. Robert Graves – who had come to know Earp at Garsington, and pigeonholed him and his fellow writers as ‘exceptionally nice people but a trifle decayed, as you might say’ – recalled in his memoir Good-bye to All That that he ‘had set himself the task of keeping the Oxford tradition alive through the dead years – as president and sole member, he said, of some seventeen undergraduate social and literary societies. In 1919, still in residence, he handed over the minute-books to the returning university. Most of the societies were then re-formed.’ One of the ‘re-formed’ societies was Exeter College’s Essay Club, where Tolkien would soon give a reading of ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, the first time any substantial vision of Middle-earth was given a public audience.

T.W. Earp photographed (with another Garsington guest) by Lady Ottoline Morrell. ‘A lock of long, soft, fair hair drooped over his forehead, seeming to come halfway down his thin pale face. From under the lock two dark eyes looked out, the liveliest, most alert, most humorous eyes I had seen,’ L.G. Strong recalled. (Picture: National Portrait Gallery)

*

1919 was quite a momentous year for Earp. As mentioned above, it was early in this year that he made the acquaintance of one of the ‘poets passing through’, the 17-year-old Roy Campbell. Earp seems to have been greatly taken by this young (and very beautiful) young man, to the extent that in the summer (or possibly in 1920) he took him on an extended trip to Paris; they are supposed by some to have had an affair, although nothing lasting came of it (indeed both men later married, in 1922). In rather surprising contrast, 1919 also saw Earp elected president of the Oxford Union: by no means an obvious move for a poet with strongly aesthetic leanings, but his term of office (Michaelmas term) seems to have been a successful one. He was praised for ‘his ready wit and courteous manner, with that poetic touch of diffidence peculiarly his own’.

But politics – an obvious future for presidents of the Union – was not where Earp’s heart lay: it was in the world of letters that he wished to shine, and indeed where he had already begun to do so. He had already established good connections to literary London; and when at last he ‘went down’ from Oxford – shortly after stepping down as president of the Union – he moved seamlessly from the role of a student ‘decadent’ to a darling of London café society. It no doubt helped that he was wealthy: he had recently inherited £40,000, and used some of the money to acquire a flat in Regent Square, where various of his friends lodged with him from time to time, including Huxley, Roy Campbell, and Russell Green, another Oxford littérateur (who had edited some issues of Coterie).

In fact London café society would prove to be an inadequate milieu for Earp to spread his wings: he would also disport himself in Paris. His visit with Roy Campbell had evidently given him a taste for the City of Light, where for some years he kept a permanent room at the Hotel Foyot (handy if you can afford it, as he evidently could). An unidentified Exeter College contemporary, writing a dispatch from Paris for the New York Herald in 1924, described Earp as having been ‘hovering between London and Paris for I don’t know how many years’. Extraordinary stories began to accumulate about his escapades in both capitals: a mock duel with wooden swords in the Jardin de Luxembourg, ending with pink champagne at the Café de Flore; being given a cellarful of Chinese wine by his London drinking companion, the composer Constant Lambert (at whose wedding he was a witness); passing out under a tarpaulin in a Covent Garden barrow after a heavy night and waking up the next morning to find that he had been wheeled to a distant part of London.

The Hotel Foyot in Paris, where the young Earp kept a room for several years (Credit: Musée Carnavalet)

Earp evidently knew how to have a good time; but work mattered to him as well as play. He still cherished aspirations as a writer, and continued to write poetry, although there were to be no anthologies after The Gate of Bronze, and in fact he seems to have found it increasingly difficult to bring his own writing projects to fruition (a problem with which Tolkien could of course have sympathized).

He continued to develop close relationships with other writers, notably Dylan Thomas, who could regularly be seen drinking with him in the pubs of London’s Fitzrovia; Thomas even addressed a poem to him, beginning

When next shall we stumble to the stutter of our lewis-gun carols
From bombazine-bosomed bar to a bliss of barrels,
Two period percies frescoed with ladders and banting,
Two spoonered swiss pillars [i.e. piss swillers], tumble falsetting and ranting?

(His criticism of another poet, D.H. Lawrence, led to the latter writing a rather less complimentary poem about him: ‘I heard a little chicken chirp: | My name is Thomas, Thomas Earp, | And I can neither paint nor write, | I can only put other people right.’)

But it was as an art critic that Earp truly found his métier. He wrote the catalogue to Giorgio de Chirico’s first British exhibition in 1928; he became a sensitive critic and champion of the work of Augustus John (and also a close friend: John painted his portrait on several occasions). He wrote art criticism for the New Statesman for a decade, and for the Daily Telegraph for a little over twice as long. He became best known as an expert on French painting – publishing an important monograph on Van Gogh in 1934 – and also on French literature. (A biography of Stendhal was one of his great unfinished projects, although he did manage to publish a translation of Stendhal’s own autobiographical Souvenirs d’Égotisme and of one of his novels.)

*

Thomas Earp with Osbert Sitwell (‘the author’) and others in Oxford, 1919
(Picture: Gabriel Atkin. Reproduced from Sitwell’s Noble Essences or Courteous Revelations, 1950)

It has to be said that Earp’s output and reputation as a writer falls far short of what had been predicted for him by his Oxford contemporary E.R. Dodds. But I wonder whether he deserves to be remembered rather more for his capacity for friendship.

It is not just that he seems to have ‘known everyone’, although the list of his friends and acquaintances is really quite staggering (Max Beerbohm, Aleister Crowley, Salvador Dalí, Serge Diaghilev, Havelock Ellis, E.M. Forster, Roger Fry, Alberto Giacometti, Oscar Hammerstein, James Joyce, Henry Moore, Ezra Pound, Picasso, Man Ray, and Bertrand Russell, to name but a few, in addition to those already mentioned). It is striking how, when looking through the reminiscences of so many of these luminaries, one finds ‘Tommy’ (as almost everyone called him) recalled, not merely as someone they knew, but someone they were extremely fond of.

Dylan Thomas, for example, ‘spoke of him [according to the artist and critic Michael Ayrton] with an affectionate awe, as if it were miraculous that this gentle and improbable individual should exist at all’. In fact the qualities of gentleness and diffidence, even shyness, recur in these recollections, all the way back to his undergraduate days; it strikes me as unusual for someone so mild and unassuming – he gave his recreation in Who’s Who as ‘silence’ – to have such a presence in the memories, and indeed the hearts, of so many.

There is a lot more that could be said about Tommy Earp. But I hope that I have been able to sketch the outlines of a personality and a life that are of at least some interest. I would certainly like to know more about the relationship between ‘that quaint man Earp’ and the Exeter College contemporary who referred to him as such; perhaps the more detailed picture of their shared context will shed some light on what that relationship was likely to be, but my second question about Thomas Wade Earp remains only partially answered. For a fuller answer, further research, in the Exeter College archives and elsewhere, is needed. I look forward to the discoveries that that research will bring.

Peter Gilliver

You can read more about the young J.R.R. Tolkien and his student friends in John Garth’s Tolkien at Exeter College: How an Oxford Undergraduate Created Middle-earth is now available in a new improved edition with revised and updated text on silk-finish paper and with colour cover.

Find out more and order your copy here.

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8 Responses to In search of T.W. Earp and the origin of ‘twerp’

  1. Dominic Lane says:

    A fascinating read, thank you.

  2. joviator says:

    You found the missing link! A few years ago I was looking for a connection between Tolkien and the Sitwells. Gave up in frustration, but there he is.

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