Saturday, September 07, 2013

On Beyond Twerk

Like it or hate it (and most hated it) Miley Cyrus' bump and grind at the MTV Video Music Awards with Robin Thicke was all the talk after the show. As usual with MTV, it wasn't about the music itself, it was about the spectacle. Something about having a former wholesome Disney star that parents and tween girls loved and looked up to prancing around in a flesh-colored bikini with her tongue lolling out and performing simulated sex on stage with an older male in front of a line of dressed up Teddy Bears struck some as being, how shall I say, just stupid on almost every level. Imagine that.

But if there is an upside (and admittedly that's an incredibly low bar to jump over in this situation), it is that it helped to expand our language. No, it's not pretty, the King's English or even something that you could use in a sentence in the next five minutes without referencing the aforementioned Ms. Cyrus. But twerk, the dance she was doing, is now officially recognized as a word. Yes, you can put away your air quotes when saying it, or so says the Oxford Dictionaries Online.

If there's any solace to you English majors out there, note that the addition is to the online version of the publication only. That's not to be confused with the Oxford English Dictionary, which considers itself a volume of record, much like The New York Times. The OED describes itself as a "historical dictionary," which 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." So at least for now, twerk is not on the same plane as temerity, whilst or onomatopoeia. Thankfully.

But if twerk can be a benchmark as to what constitutes an official word (to be precise, "verb: to dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance"), what else makes the cut? Turns out that the ODO adds words quarterly, and twerk was part of a bumper crop this time around. Some entries are simply acronyms that have become speechified (FOMO: "noun: Fear Of Missing Out" or MOOC: "noun: Massive Open Online Course"), while others seem late to the party (Street Food: "noun: prepared or cooked food sold by vendors in a street or other public location for immediate consumption" or Me Time: "noun: time spent relaxing on one's own as opposed to working or doing things for others"). Still, there are enough new unknowns to make the average civilian feel like he or she was dropped into an alien landscape or a college sorority, which is almost the same thing.

There's apols ("noun: apologies"), grats ("noun: congratulations") and jorts ("noun: denim shorts, a portmanteau of jeans and shorts"). You might want a phablet ("noun: a smartphone with a screen size between that of a phone and a tablet"), have your hair in a fauxhawk ("noun: a hairstyle in which a section of hair running from the front to the back of the head stands erect, intended to resemble a Mohican haircut") or wear a pair of flatforms ("noun: a flat shoe with a high, thick sole"). Or maybe you have plans for a babymoon ("noun: a relaxing or romantic holiday taken by parents-to-be before their baby is born") or were at a party where they served cake pops (noun: "a small round piece of cake coated with icing or chocolate and fixed on the end of a stick so as to resemble a lollipop").

In the movie "Annie Hall," Woody Allen characterizes his relationship with the title character this way: "A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark." English doesn't want to be a dead shark, so it constantly wiggles and moves, adding words like derp and squee to keep itself relevant and alive (Go ahead and look them up: they are now officially legit). No, it's not always smooth sailing and the results are sometimes questionable, but it does work. Or put another way: do you know the word for anti-lock brakes or smartphone or botox in Old Norse? No? I rest my case.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves language. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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