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Watch out for the birdie?

…an accountant found guilty of sending a “menacing tweet” was the victim of a legal “steamroller” that threatened to make the law look silly…

The Telegraph 8 February 2012

What comes into your head when you see the words ‘menacing’ and ‘tweet’ side by side, as in the above? It initially struck me as being a case of oxymoron, similar to military intelligence or gourmet burger. Tweets are typically innocuous, ephemeral, and (dare I say it?) trivial messages, and then there’s that cute little birdie forming the Twitter logo – how could anyone feel menaced by that?

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the legal case, ‘menace’ tends to evoke images of very large men of grim appearance, wielding serious weaponry so as to coerce someone into doing something. Also, why was the tweet described as ‘menacing’ rather than ‘threatening’ or even ‘intimidating’? While all these three synonyms convey a sense of fear, danger, or unpleasantness being used to achieve an aim, there are some interesting nuances of meaning that differentiate them.

The menacing Dennis

Unlike threaten and intimidate, ‘menace’ can be both a noun and a verb. Although I want to focus on verbs, as a fan of the British comic The Beano, I can’t resist a quick diversion into ‘menace’ as a noun. I can claim some linguistic justification for this, given that the statistical evidence on Oxford’s two-billion-word database of contemporary English, the Oxford English Corpus (OEC), shows that the noun is actually more common, with 9,632 instances, compared with 7,531 for the verb.

The main meaning of the noun is ‘a person or thing that’s a threat or danger to others’:

 I was a criminal, a drunk, a drug dealer, an addict and a menace to society.

We have sought to engage friendly countries all over the world in a global effort to counter the menace of terrorism.

Related to this is a second sense, namely ‘a quality or atmosphere that seems dangerous or frightening’:

White projects a powerful sense of menace – one look and you know he can deal mayhem.

However, away from all this scary stuff, one of my favourite Beano characters is Dennis the Menace. Dennis is a badly behaved boy rather than an out-and-out yob. While he might be said to ‘menace’ his parents and other children, his behaviour is not so much threatening as a source of constant annoyance – he’s a mischievous nuisance, not a thug.

The Oxford English Dictionary records this diluted meaning of the noun from 1936: it’s often used in a mildly critical but affectionate way:

Highly independent, mischievous, reserved and dignified, these feline friends are at once a joy and a menace, a cuddly pet and a nuisance.

But I digress! Let’s return to the verb – as mentioned, it has 7, 531 occurrences on the OEC, 80% of which are for the verbal adjective menacing:

He stood tall in sumo’s clay dohyo, cowing opponents with his massive frame and menacing glare.

The set is very dark and menacing; Hammer House of Horror in the extreme.

These two powers…remain the two great entities that in the future could seriously menace America’s security.

As the above examples illustrate, ‘menacing’ and ‘menace’ typically refer to a highly frightening or hostile impression conveyed by a person or thing or a general danger to someone or something.

Making threats to life and limb…

When a person threatens someone, on the other hand, they make a strongly worded vow that very nasty or harmful things will definitely occur unless their victim goes along with what the threatener wants. The instigator can threaten a person:

Three armed robbers wearing balaclavas stole a large amount of clothing from a shop after threatening the owner with a machete.

or they can refer to the specific unpleasantness that will happen:

They threatened violence and demanded money and jewellery from four people after claiming the victims owed them drugs money.

His girlfriend has allegedly threatened to kill herself if he dumps her.

The evidence on the OEC for ‘threaten’ shows that, with 155,566 occurrences, it crops up much more frequently in our language than either ‘menace’ or ‘intimidate’. This reflects the fact that, apart from the main meaning above, the verb has several related senses in which a thing rather than a person does the threatening. Here ‘threaten’ either means ‘be a danger or risk to someone or something’:

Illegal logging is threatening the livelihoods of millions of the world’s poor.

or (when an undesirable event or phenomenon is the subject) ‘be very likely to happen’:

Cleaning the roadways is routine, but the routine becomes much more important when a hurricane threatens.

Don’t be a timid Timothy!

‘Intimidate’ carries within it the adjective timid (they share the same Latin root word, timidus) and the act of intimidating someone is all about making them scared enough to do what you want, or too frightened to do anything at all:

He admitted that prosecuting Smith won’t be easy and there’s no guarantee that witnesses won’t be intimidated into not testifying.

He revealed he had been intimidated by a gang of youths which hang around near where he lives.

A person, place, idea, or object can also appear to be so formidable that, while no specific threats are made or intended, their mere existence causes other people to feel seriously daunted or lacking in confidence:

Our research shows that of the 50-plus buyers, more than 60 percent say they are intimidated by technology.

This meaning is often expressed by the adjective intimidating:

He possesses a genuinely intimidating screen presence, which commands attention and fearful respect from the audience.

She makes it clear that selling paintings, while initially an “intimidating” prospect, has its own thrills.

Having considered the linguistic evidence and given that, in the court case mentioned above, a specific threat (albeit a facetious one borne of frustration about delayed flights) was made to blow up an airport, perhaps ‘threatening tweet’ would have been a more appropriate wording (and pleasingly alliterative too). But my quirky mind would no doubt have still found something incongruous about a tweet being threatening…watch out for those dangerous birdies!

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