Of course “twerk” belongs in the dictionary—it’s been around for 20 years

Twerking is a fact of life.
Twerking is a fact of life.
Image: Getty Images/Roger Kisby
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Bringing up the rear of the cultural commentary parade around Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance was the announcement that Oxford Dictionaries Online has added the word twerk.

Twerk, of course, rhymes with bezerk, and that is what reliably happens every time a dictionary offers up another “look what we added!” press release. A few pop-culture words are publicized as new additions to the “the dictionary” and anyone who’s ever internalized the Oxford comma rules or used the word bathetic correctly in a sentence complains that THIS TIME, the dictionary has gone too far, English is ruined forever, and from now on they will only be writing in unspoiled languages, such as French and Inuit (they have all those words for snow, dontcha know…).

Following the initial uproar come the voices of reason: Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus, Oxford’s Katherine Connor Martin, and John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun step in and try to soothe the mob. These words have existed for a long time (20 years, in the case of twerk) without the language crumbling into dust; dictionaries merely report the language; nobody’s forcing you to write srsly instead of seriously and so on and so forth. As a bonus, include grumpy lexicographers explaining (for roughly the one gazillionth time) that Oxford Dictionaries Online (or ODO) is not the same as the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED).

I’m all in favor of bringing people’s attention to new and lesser-known words; the endless creativity of English speakers and writers brings me considerable joy and is one of the reasons that I became a lexicographer in the first place. But the framing that’s been brought to these new-word announcements isn’t one of scientific discovery—we don’t approach these new words in wide-eyed wonder at the marvels of our age; instead, it’s all condemnation of the kids today, ruining the language with their selfies and their squee.

As with Miley’s performance itself, there’s a strong and dismaying undercurrent of appropriation and exploitation in the words that are featured. It’s worth stopping to think about how these words from marginalized groups are used to give even more power and authority to an institution that has historically been employed to justify the belittling of the language of those same groups.

Just contrast the recent discovery of a new mammal the olinguito (pronounced oh lin GHEE toe) whose name was not added to the Oxford Dictionaries Online in this latest batch. Nobody questioned whether or not the olinguito is a “real” carnivore or responded to the coverage with the declaration that the chordates are completely ruined and that the scientists just let anyone into the class Mammalia these days. Nobody said that sure, the olinguito is cute and all, but since you probably shouldn’t eat one, it’s not really an animal. The existence (or non-) of words is a fact, just as the existence of animals or plants is a fact; a fact that is entirely separate from the judgment of a word’s aesthetic value.

This cycle of lexicographical announcement and peever outrage (which has repeated at regular intervals since at least the publication of Webster’s Third New International in 1961) has increased in both frequency and fervidity in the two decades that I’ve worked as a lexicographer, but it can’t go on forever. With these “new words” announcements, lexicographers take advantage of the general perception of dictionaries as arbiters of language (where being “in” is the sign of a “real word” and being out, is, well, outré). If dictionaries were truly descriptive, they would be more like search engines—less of a “who’s who” and more of a “what’s what.” But with every back-and-forth—adding sensationalistic new words and then backtracking with a “but we just record the language” the exercise loses its attention-grabbing power. Perhaps the new-words announcement needs to join “does she or doesn’t she?” and the Burma Shave signs in the confraternity of marketing tropes that have outlived their cultural relevance.

The truth is, these days, anyone with an internet connection and even the most remedial search skills can find out what words “mean” in a few milliseconds. What a dictionary should provide is more context, more nuance, more space for discussion. (Disclosure: in 2008 I founded a new online dictionary, Wordnik.com, dedicated to doing just this.) Dictionaries should be thinking about what it is that they bring to readers and writers today—what needs do they serve? How are they relevant? What are the questions that people have about English words, and how can a dictionary answer them? Putting together a list of buzzworthy new additions to a dictionary is necessary, but certainly not sufficient.