The internet has been in an uproar this week about the phenomenon of “twerking.” But tonight, I’m not going to be talking about Miley Cyrus’s controversial VMA performance. I’m going to talk about the word itself.
Three days after Miley’s performance, Oxford Dictionaries Online announced their quarterly word updates on their blog, and “twerking” was on the list. Already a trending topic, the word thrust a revered dictionary into an unlikely spotlight.
Because my sister is an expert on pop culture, I am not as in-the-dark on modern cultural happenings as I would be left to my own devices. She has made it her mission to keep me socially acceptable and properly scandalized, and she’s done a fine job of both. As such, I was recently educated on the phenomenon of “twerking,” so I knew exactly what I was reading about on every news page and every Tweet. The story took top spot on many notable news sites, including CNN, even overshadowing coverage of the Syria crisis. But not everyone knew what it meant; some desired education from a dictionary rather than YouTube.
And they got their wish. Though planned for months, the Oxford Dictionary Online‘s announcement about their addition of “twerking” created a unique intersection of pop and lexicological culture, adding fuel to the media fire. News sources were quick to report–but more often, misreport the news. I can only guess that people saw “Oxford Dictionary Online” and assumed “English” was there, too.
The Oxford English Dictionary has long been a personal favorite of mine. From the moment I discovered its complexity and historical etymology, I was hooked. When I saw its enormity and comprehensiveness, it was love at first sight.
It is that enormity that has caused the dictionary to switch to an online-only version, which probably furthered the confusion.
The ODO‘s announcement post itself notes the distinction:
“It is important to note that the new words mentioned above have been added to Oxford Dictionaries Online, not the Oxford English Dictionary. Why is this?
• The dictionary content in ODO focuses on current English and includes modern meanings and uses of words
• The OED, on the other hand, is a historical dictionary and it forms a record of all the core words and meanings in English over more than 1,000 years, from Old English to the present day, including many obsolete and historical terms. Words are never removed from the OED.”
So there you have it. And now we’ve had days more of correction articles about the ODO vs. OED entries; this one is my favorite, with the title “Step Away from the Ledge–Twerk Isn’t Actually in the OED.” It’s been the twerk heard ’round the world, and with its cyber-immortalization in the ODO and now every newspaper, I can’t help but wonder if one day, it will make it into the OED.
I would be interested to see what the OED would say about the etymology. Apparently, the word goes back further than you might think. In fact, Miley wasn’t even the first Disney princess to use it.
OK, so maybe it doesn’t go back quite THAT far, but it is already 20 years old, a probable variation of “work it,” according to the ODO. You can read their blog’s interesting article about the word’s history here–a smart marketing move to perpetuate their sudden popularity. I suppose I can be a word hipster here, saying I liked the ODO/OED before it was cool.
When the world needs something explained, we turn to Morgan Freeman to narrate it. Enjoy. (For mobile users, go to YouTube to watch.)