Getting worked up over "twerk"

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Perfect lexicographical storms don't come along like this very often. On Sunday night, Miley Cyrus egregiously "twerked" at MTV's Video Music Awards, in a performance that quickly became National Conversation #1 (even outpacing Syria). About 48 hours later, Oxford Dictionaries announced its quarterly update of new words — with the Associated Press and others trumpeting the news far and wide — and lo and behold, there was twerk, defined as a verb meaning "dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance."

Reactions to the Oxford Dictionaries list were in many ways predictable: along with twerk, the healthy smattering of social-media-friendly lingo (selfie, srsly, vom, apols, squee, etc.) led many to complain that Oxford's lexicographers seem overly youth-obsessed — even though youth slang is the obvious source for much of our lexical innovation, like it or not. And there was the inevitable confusion between Oxford Dictionaries Online, where these additions appear, and the Oxford English Dictionary, which isn't so concerned with the latest neologisms. ODO has its own explanation of the difference, but the media needs constant reminders: the Atlantic Wire and Slate's Browbeat blog supplied correctives this time around, just as Browbeat did last month when ODO's revision of the definition for marriage was misattributed to the OED. (Disclaimer: I used to be editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and was tasked with explaining these distinctions on a near-daily basis.)

Another common misconception was that the folks at Oxford Dictionaries added an entry for twerk as a direct response to the whole Miley Cyrus brouhaha. USA Today asked, "Did Miley Cyrus help 'twerk' land in the dictionary?" But Katherine Connor Martin, the current head of US dictionaries at OUP, patiently explained that the entry was planned months ago, and in any case, twerking has been around for two decades already — originating in the "bounce music" scene of New Orleans around the time that Miley was born. Still, the timing of the new-words announcement couldn't have been more fortuitous: just as everyone was trying to figure out what the heck twerking means, here comes Oxford to define it for us. (Arnold Zwicky shares a New Yorker cartoon in which a horrified couple sits in front of a laptop, with the man saying, "I was much happier when I thought twerking was some new drug Miley Cyrus was into.")

But the most typical reaction to the Oxford announcement is encapsulated in the Esquire headline, "Embarrassing News of the Day: 'Twerk' Is Now a Real Word." Once again lexicographers are popularly perceived as the ceremonial arbiters of "real words," as if twerk had existed in some non-word limbo until Oxford's gatekeepers magically anointed it with lexical status. I had occasion to poke holes in this mythical view in a New York Times op/ed piece last year about the public preoccupation with lexicographical controversies that too often turn out to be nontroversies. Now, granted, thinking of lexicographers (especially stuffy Oxonians) as a hush-hush word-officiating cabal works well comedically — witness how "The Sarah Silverman Program" imagined the OED's Word Induction Ceremony. This time around, we have The Atlantic's Derek Thompson satirically working all the items from the new-word list into a fictitious memo from the "Word Selection Committee of the Oxford Dictionary."

There's extra comedic potential when these supposedly staid lexicographers deliberate over "embarrassing" slang like twerk. I'm reminded of reports in 2006 that Beyonce was "embarrassed" by the inclusion of bootylicious in the OED. "I wish there was another word I could have come up with if I was going to have a word in the dictionary," she was quoted as saying. (As I wrote at the time, Beyonce didn't in fact coin bootylicious, and -licious has been gregariously attaching itself to words for many decades now.) But why shouldn't earthy slang terms like twerk and bootylicious, no matter how squeamishly handled in contemporary body politics, receive dictionary treatment?

When considered lexicographically, a word like twerk can tell an interesting story. As mentioned, it started out in New Orleans c. 1993, when bounce-music anthems like DJ Jubilee's "Do the Jubilee All" exhorted listeners to twerk. The ODO entry sensibly suggests that twerk is an alteration of work, as in "work it," and Oxford etymologist Anatoly Liberman has further suggested that the tw- form is influenced by twitch or twist. That seems more likely than a straight-up blend of twist and jerk, as some have conjectured, and certainly more plausible than the theory that it is a clipped form of footwork. (On Twitter, several wags took the etymologizing to more absurd levels, deriving twerk from German Gesamtkunstwerk 'total work of art'.)

I'm predisposed to care about such neologisms, since among other things I'm chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, which selects a Word of the Year at its annual meeting. Some are already anticipating/dreading the prospect of twerk achieving WOTY status for 2013. I can't really predict how it will do (though it seems like it should at least be a shoo-in to win one of the lesser categories, like Most Outrageous). But if twerk does indeed get picked as Word of the Year, you can expect a fresh chorus of wails condemning the debasement of the language.

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25 Comments »

  1. Ellen K. said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

    Ooo… two new words for me now this week. Twerk (and twerker), plus now egregiously. :D

  2. Ray Girvan said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

    This has dredged from the depths of memory the sentence "Tacky twerk and showy tum".

    When I lived in Stoke-on-Trent some 35 years ago, I read a little humorous guide to Potteries dialect, and that was its phonetic rendition of "Take it to work and show it to 'em".

  3. Belial said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

    Tacky twerk and showy tum
    This is how the new words come
    In a bootylicious ball
    ODO will list them all.

  4. Rubrick said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 4:19 pm

    The inclusion of twerk was a yawner for me, but I was slightly surprised that "blondie" had bubbled its way onto their list at this particular point in time.

  5. John Lawler said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 5:44 pm

    I hadn't run across twerk before, but it fits beautifully in with the phonosemantics, both of the rime -ərk (Pejorative, e.g. irk lurk murk jerk shirk smirk quirk turkey), and of the assonance tw- (Pejorative; and One-Dimensional Diminutive, Repeated Motion).

  6. Garrett Wollman said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 10:33 pm

    The prospect of attending the WOTY proceedings is enough to make me seriously consider traveling to Minneapolis in January, which I don't think I would ever have contemplated doing under normal circumstances.

  7. fev said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 6:28 am

    Egregelicious!

  8. Nuno said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 6:47 am

    The idea of twerking being derived from Gesamtkunstwerk just made my day. It's hardly gesamt as it's very much focused on a specific body part, and while it might be a good workout I'm not sure it counts as a Werk of art.

  9. Jeff Carney said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 8:05 am

    It's a shame the twizzle never caught on.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 9:18 am

    Was "twerk" considered a pejorative in the subculture in which the verb was originally coined and popularized (as opposed to in recent media hoopla by people who were perhaps not previously familiar with the phenomenon?)? If not, how does that affect Prof. Lawler's phonosemantic analysis?

  11. Lane said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 9:46 am

    Well then, I hope it wins WOTY just to annoy all the right people.

  12. Dan Warren said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 9:46 am

    I'm not complaining, but not mentioned in this article is the addition of 'Phablet' – a word (and I use the term loosely) that Ben nominated for the 'Least Likely to Succeed' category at WOTY last year. My interest is that I am pretty sure that phablet (a portmanteau of phone and tablet) is my creation. It was never meant to become this beast that it has, and it was very much a joke. So many people were laughing at my new giant phone in 2010, that I created a name for it, and so phablets were born. Yes, it sounds horrendous, with far too much in common with phlegm for many people's tastes, but it was meant to also convey that my phablet was indeed (and I apologise) phabulous.

    I am proud of the mark I have made on the English language whilst also being horrified that it is such a nasty mark. But it is mine. To disown phablet now would be like disowning a child because it was ugly.

    I do, most humbly apologise though. Really, I do.

    [(bgz) As I wrote back in January after the WOTY vote, "it may be that phablet [like blog before it] ends up succeeding in spite of itself." Congratulations to Dan for his unwitting success!]

  13. exackerly said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 10:51 am

    My question for the peevers (which abound on sites like Slate.com) is always, Where exactly am I supposed to go to find out what a word like "twerk" actually means? There's always Urban Dictionary, I guess, but they're notoriously unreliable. Isn't it a good idea to put scrupulous researchers like those at Oxford Dictionaries on the case?

    Nobody seems to object to slang dictionaries, btw, or works like DARE. Maybe the Oxford Dictionary should change its title to "Dictionary of the English Language Including Words You Don't Approve Of".

  14. Michael Israel said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

    The other new (to me) word that's bubbled up in this brouhaha is "molly", which MTV actually bleeped out of Miley's performance. The offending line was "dancing all night with m—–. Turns out "molly" is another name for XTC, affectionately short for 'molecular MDMA'. But I definitely agree that "twerk" is the more outrageous word.

  15. Ellen K. said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

    I find Urban Dictionary reasonably reliable for finding out what a word means in a specific context. And I think the very freeness that allows for spurious entries and poorly written entries also enables it to stay up to date and current with the latest slang. No need for the word to come to the attention of a lexicographer first; no need to learn the formatting like at Wiktionary; thus, anyone can add an entry.

  16. mochazina said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

    NOLA native here: thanks for acknowledging the history & origin. We're still not pleased with the misappropriation of our dance, but…

  17. Nora said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 9:39 pm

    Those interested in more information or the history of the dance form might want to check out this article: http://www.thisisafrica.me/visual-arts/detail/19862/twerk-booty-dancing-gender-politics-white-privilege

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 30, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

    If "twerk" was coined circa '93 in New Orleans, was it coined because of a felt need to describe a new phenomenon (i.e. a style of dancing that had not thitherto been extant, at least in Anglophone North America), or was it just a new word for an already-existent thing? For example, some of the dancing seen in the video for Experience Unlimited's 1988 hit "Da Butt" (which was somehow tied in with a Spike Lee movie released that year, although it's been so long since I've seen the movie that I'm not sure if some or all of the dancing seen in the video is actually footage from the movie or not) seems to fit the definition of "twerk" at least at a reasonably high level of generality (and it is perhaps undignified for a man my age to spend a lot of time looking at more recent videos to try to discern any subtle nuances of difference in booty-shaking technique). Would "twerk" be an accurate if anachronistic label for that current-in-'88 (and I doubt all that novel then) mode of dancing?

  19. Dusk said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 11:32 am

    Ellen K, the main issue I take to Urban Dictionary is its tendency to degenerate into suggesting that practically every word is some form of horribly depraved sexual act. While the results are certainly amusing at times, I'm not sure they can be trusted much.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 9:37 pm

    Captain Kirk watches Miley Cyrus performance

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6Lb3kFwJRQ

  21. Geoff Nunberg said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 1:30 am

    The only reason the ODO released that list — and peppered it with the most ephemeral and ditzy items among the new words they've included — is that they knew that the media would give it lots of play it as a story about how tweak, vom, etc. were now "official words." That's the game that dictionaries are obliged to play these days, pandering to what they themselves regard as misconceptions about their role. But it's disingenuous for lexicographers to deplore the same myths that they're busy exploiting.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 7:44 am

    http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2013/08/28/web-yheadline-here-28/ notes that a welcoming address to incoming college freshman by a not-so-young faculty member (she's exactly my own age, so I'm allowed to say that …) was deemed "very current" by one audience member on account that the distinguished professor employed the word "twerk."

  23. Birdseed said,

    September 9, 2013 @ 4:41 am

    J.W. Brewer: There's a range of buttock-or-waist-oriented dance moves throughout Africa and the post-colonial African diaspora, and they're not all the same, just as European ballroom dances are not all the same even though they all involve two people, mostly straight posture and co-ordinated leg movement.

    Twerking is one of the more strenuous ones in my experience, and involves a slightly bent-forward pose, knees flexed, legs slightly turned outwards, feet planted on ground, hands on knees (optional), with a rhythmical pivot movement up-down of the hip bone. Most of the work is done by the thigh muscles, and it's critically important to keep the glutes as loose as possible to achieve maximum wobble. More advanced versions may include sideways movement of the hip as well, or lifting of legs, but it's never the main focus of the dance.

    So neither what Miley Cyrus is doing, nor what the dancers in E.U.'s DC go-go classic are doing, are classifiable as twerking. More information from a New Orleans legend here: http://www.fuse.tv/2013/08/big-freedia-miley-cyrus-twerk

  24. Asad said,

    September 12, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

    Is there a prehistory for the complaints? Were people complaining about new dictionary words in the 19th century?

    [(myl) People were complaining about neologisms in the 16th century, and for that matter in the first century B.C. Focusing the complaints on dictionary updating is more recent, because authoritative dictionaries are more recent, and new editions of such dictionaries are even more recent than that. But there was an enormous fuss about Webster's Third New International (Unabridged) in 1961.]

  25. Ramon Reiser said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 1:52 am

    I believe "Twerk" has long been used by the linguist Suzette Elgin, for instance in her Gentle Art of Self-Defense series. If I remember it use was a linguistic term for a repeated spoken expression that unintentionally distracted listeners from what the speaker is trying to say.

    I believe excessive use of "you know", "ah, . . . ,ah, …" Can quickly unintentionally distract one from the message intended.

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