After Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance, “twerk” has been added as an official word to Oxford Dictionaries Online. (Not the Oxford English Dictionary, mind you—unlike the OED, the ODO “focuses on current English and includes modern meanings and uses of words,” while the OED, “is a historical dictionary…from Old English to the present day, including many obsolete and historical terms. Words are never removed from the OED.”)
Twerk is now a verb meaning, to “dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.”
Can you guess what the English language and Miley Cyrus have in common? Before you spurt out some crude quip about the plethora of synonyms for “working girl,” consider this: was English exactly as it is today ten years ago? Was Miley twerking on Rob Thicke when she began playing Hanna Montana in 2006? Not likely.
Like Miley’s transformational persona (for better or for worse), the English language is in constant flux. Its evolution is a survival mechanism: if it becomes stagnant, it will die. How long could we have possibly taken Hannah Montana? How long could we have spoken Shakespearean English before neologisms became necessary due to human advancements? Not very long at all.
Miley and the English language have a distinctive need for survival: they know if they rely on past merits they will quickly fall from favor, seep into a gutter, and be forgotten forever.
Consider “sod,” which was an abbreviation for sodomite in the early 19th century. In 1912, author D.H. Lawrence used “sodding” as an intensifier in a letter: “The miserable sodding rotters…that make up England today.” He coined “balls-aching” the same year as well.
Considering that, “at the time of his death, his public reputation was that of a pornographer,” D. H. Lawrence’s neologisms might have sounded just as ridiculous to early-twentieth-century England as “twerking” does to Americans today.
Similarly, no one looking through the OED in the late 60s would consider the neologism “fuckwit” a permanent fixture to the most respected dictionary in the world. Even I was surprised when I found it on my desktop OED app.
There’s a larger question at play here, however: is the induction of “twerk” into the ODO an example of the acclivitous rise of hyper-sexualization in modern society?
Not by a long shot.
One has to simply glance at Catullus 16, a Latin poem written in the first century B.C., to begin to see that all of history’s societies had been “hyper-sexualized,” in one manner or another.
Whether it was the confession booth, the psychiatrist’s couch, literature, art, the media or the incessant stream of sexual discipline and (ironically) vocal measures taken by pedagogical institutions, sexuality has been prevalent in discourse throughout human history.
And it’s not like “twerk” is a direct product of recent events: the word has been around for a few decades. Meanings of words and their frequency of use change based on the necessities of the time.
It was Miley’s performance, the subsequent vast media coverage of the term and extremely popular YouTube videos that have solidified the word into the English vernacular.
The necessity of the word’s induction into the English language has been established by the millions people who have discussed it, contemptuously or otherwise.