Wednesday, September 4, 2013

'Twerk' it up

I did not watch the MTV Video Music Awards. In fact, the only part of the VMAs I have witnessed is Miley Cyrus 'twerking' in front of (or on?) Robin Thicke, which I have watched on Youtube countless times. With each viewing, I only become more confused. 

A little lost in the Miley Cyrus noise was this article on The New York Times: "Oxford Dictionary Decides 'to Twerk.'" Several other major news sources also picked up the story, with similar headlines. Of course, this caused countless grammarians, English graduate assistants and people who regularly wear tweed jackets to bemoan the English language's precipitous decline.

However, as Forest Wickman from Slate pointed out, "twerk" is not on its way into the Oxford English Dictionary's hallowed halls. Instead, twerk, along with the word "selfie," is going into the Oxford Dictionary Online, which is a totally different beast. The ODO focuses on modern English usage, while the OED concentrates on the history of the English language. Words are never removed from the OED. The ODO is to the OED as a dog's memory is to Gandalf's.

Although I was pleased to know that in 300 years no one will come across twerk in the OED next to a photo of Miley Cyrus' deranged face (at least for now), I did wonder how words made the cut into the OED. For those interested, here is a video produced by the University of Oxford that explains the process.

This clip lead me to further investigate the OED, which brought me to the book The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. Although I have only made it partway through the book, I find it both entertaining and informative. For example, did you know that Samuel Johnson's dictionary outsold the Bible for several years? Or that Johnson's dictionary also included profanities? Or that George Orwell (among others) wanted to purge the language of all its Latin-based words and phrases, returning English to its Anglo-Saxon roots and forcing all of us to speak like the characters in Beowulf? 

Most importantly, does anyone else think that twerk has an Anglo-Saxon ring? Would it make it into Orwell's lexicon, I wonder?

Here is the link to the NYT article, and here is the link to the Slate article



  1. Samuel Johnson said it best, (to you Sean): "Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind."