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Oxford's "Twerk": The Perfect Lexicographical Storm?

When Oxford Dictionaries announced that its quarterly update would include the word twerk, a term for a particularly racy dance style, the timing was perfect: just two days earlier, Miley Cyrus had created a sensation by "twerking" at MTV's Video Music Awards. The result, writes our own Ben Zimmer, was a "perfect lexicographical storm."

On Language Log, Ben takes a look at the overheated response to Oxford's announcement:

Reactions to the Oxford Dictionaries list were in many ways predictable: along with twerk, the healthy smattering of social-media-friendly lingo (selfie, srsly, vom, apols, squee, etc.) led many to complain that Oxford's lexicographers seem overly youth-obsessed — even though youth slang is the obvious source for much of our lexical innovation, like it or not. And there was the inevitable confusion between Oxford Dictionaries Online, where these additions appear, and the Oxford English Dictionary, which isn't so concerned with the latest neologisms. ODO has its own explanation of the difference, but the media needs constant reminders: the Atlantic Wire and Slate's Browbeat blog supplied correctives this time around, just as Browbeat did last month when ODO's revision of the definition for marriage was misattributed to the OED. (Disclaimer: I used to be editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and was tasked with explaining these distinctions on a near-daily basis.)

Another common misconception was that the folks at Oxford Dictionaries added an entry for twerk as a direct response to the whole Miley Cyrus brouhaha. USA Today asked, "Did Miley Cyrus help 'twerk' land in the dictionary?" But Katherine Connor Martin, the current head of US dictionaries at OUP, patiently explained that the entry was planned months ago, and in any case, twerking has been around for two decades already — originating in the "bounce music" scene of New Orleans around the time that Miley was born. Still, the timing of the new-words announcement couldn't have been more fortuitous: just as everyone was trying to figure out what the heck twerking means, here comes Oxford to define it for us. (Arnold Zwicky shares a New Yorker cartoon in which a horrified couple sits in front of a laptop, with the man saying, "I was much happier when I thought twerking was some new drug Miley Cyrus was into.")

But the most typical reaction to the Oxford announcement is encapsulated in the Esquire headline, "Embarrassing News of the Day: 'Twerk' Is Now a Real Word." Once again lexicographers are popularly perceived as the ceremonial arbiters of "real words," as if twerk had existed in some non-word limbo until Oxford's gatekeepers magically anointed it with lexical status. I had occasion to poke holes in this mythical view in a New York Times op/ed piece last year about the public preoccupation with lexicographical controversies that too often turn out to be nontroversies. Now, granted, thinking of lexicographers (especially stuffy Oxonians) as a hush-hush word-officiating cabal works well comedically — witness how "The Sarah Silverman Program" imagined the OED's Word Induction Ceremony. This time around, we have The Atlantic's Derek Thompson satirically working all the items from the new-word list into a fictitious memo from the "Word Selection Committee of the Oxford Dictionary."

Read the rest of Ben's post here, and read the new-words update from Oxford Dictionaries here.
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