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Twerk? It's everywhere, even the dictionary

Say what you will about Miley Cyrus' booty-bouncing dance moves, but she helped rump-shake a word straight into the dictionary.


Now even your grandmother can use it in a sentence — if not on the dance floor — thanks to Britain's Oxford Dictionaries.

On Wednesday, the quirkmeisters, who annually provoke conversation and eye-rolls by allowing zeitgeisty words into their pages, added the verb.

In case you need the official definition: "Dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance."

Twerk's inclusion is the culmination of the modern language machine in the 21st century, one that is driven largely — often at high, snowballing speed — by social media and the Internet.

Oxford's announcement not-so-coincidentally follows Miley's performance Sunday on the MTV Video Music Awards, when she twerked up a controversial storm while performing No. 1 hit We Can't Stop. Immediately, we took to Facebook and Twitter to sound off about her tongue-lolling theatrics and gyratory antics.

Although neither the word twerk nor the dance move is new — it has been a staple in hip-hop for years — Miley has been the chief conduit. In an effort to shed her Hannah Montana past, she is largely banking her post-Disney all-grown-up fame on twerking. Months ago, the 20-year-old released a YouTube video of her twerking in a unicorn costume. That video, despite being bizarre and utterly exhausting, now has a few million hits.

On the same day as Oxford's announcement, a song by Cyrus and Justin Bieber called Twerk not coincidentally "leaked" online. The club cut is obnoxious and lewd and will make parents feel great currents of anxiety. It should also be a No. 1 hit any day.

Yep, twerk is a silly, sexy word — that Oxford Dictionaries takes very seriously.

"There are many theories about the origin of this word, and since it arose in oral use, we may never know the answer for sure," Oxford Dictionaries' Katherine Connor Martin told the Associated Press. "We think the most likely theory is that it is an alteration of work, because that has a history of being used in similar ways, with dancers being encouraged to 'work it.' The T could be a result of blending with another word, such as 'twist' or 'twitch.' "

Oxford Dictionaries publishes myriad reference works, and twerk won't be making it into all of them (especially the much more refined Oxford English Dictionary). But the Oxford Dictionaries Online will include it. explains how new words are chosen: "It used to be the case that a new term had to be used over a period of two or three years before we could consider adding it to a print dictionary. In today's digital age, the situation has changed. New terms can achieve enormous currency with a wide audience in a much shorter space of time."

Along with "twerk," Oxford Dictionaries this year also added "selfie" (to take a self-portrait with your smartphone), "jorts" (jean shorts, usually mocked and ridiculed by your friends), "cake pop" (an overrated, overpriced dollop of cake on a stick) and "food baby" (to eat so much you look like you're at least eight months pregnant).

Last year's entries included "tweeps" (Twitter followers), "lolz" (an annoying online abbreviation for ironic amusement) and "vajazzle" (you should probably look that one up on your own — if you're over 18, that is).

Oxford Dictionaries longs to provoke, of course. But by choosing the most popular buzzwords of the day for inclusion — especially dumb ones like "lolz" — it also shows how the world works.

Instead of current lexicon being formed by songs or TV or movies or newspapers, modern language is largely being driven by our lives online. That's the chief marketplace for language in the 21st century, not just for emoticons and emojis (both of which are esteemed Oxford Dictionaries honorees, by the way), but the words of the day.

Another phrase added this year was "digital detox," aka taking a breather from Facebook and Twitter. And yet that's exactly where most of us were after Miley Cyrus officially twerked her way into the language books.

Sean Daly can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @seandalypoplife.

Twerk? It's everywhere, even the dictionary 08/28/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 11:41pm]
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