The news that selfie has been named the Oxford Dictionaries international Word of the Year 2013 means another word didn’t get a fair shake — nor did it get a fair jiggle. That word, of course, is twerk.
Not that there’s anything wrong with selfie. It meets the criteria for the honor, having “cultural significance” and reflecting “the ethos, mood or preoccupations of that particular year.” As the Oxford Dictionaries decisionmakers noted in a statement, appearances of the word have increased by 17,000% this year as it “evolved from a social-media buzzword to mainstream shorthand for a self-portrait photograph.” The word was added to Oxford’s online dictionary in August (in the same batch of words as selfie), and the concept’s ascension provoked think pieces contemplating what the culture’s obsession with self-image really means and how our natural tendency to focus on faces fits in. There’s even a buzzed-about app that’s photo sharing for selfies only.
But twerk, which was a runner-up for Word of the Year, has all that and more.
Like selfie, twerk made the leap from niche slang to the main-est of the mainstream. Though it’s been around since the ’90s — the 1993 song “Do the Jubilee All” is often cited as the earliest recorded usage — it made the big time this year. In September, the same month twerking was the subject of a new Guinness-sanctioned world record, it was named the “top television word of the year” by the Global Language Monitor. As the world will never forget, in March singer Miley Cyrus posted a video of herself twerking in a unicorn onesie and subsequently explained the dance to Ryan Seacrest and, by extension, the world. The clip went viral, and copycat videos abounded. By May, more than 30 high school students in San Diego had been suspended for participating in the trend; by the end of the summer, twerking earrings were being sold on Etsy. The word has also inspired plenty of deep thought. Twerking has led to many an impassioned blog post about whether Cyrus’ use of the dance is setting a bad example for young women or if it qualifies as cultural appropriation and degrades the black women long associated with that tradition of movement.
When Cyrus twerked — or at least tried to — at MTV’s Video Music Awards in late August, just before Oxford announced that the word was being added to the online dictionary, it was what language guru Ben Zimmer dubbed a “perfect lexicographical storm.” The two events weren’t actually related, and their confluence is proof that the twerk zeitgeist was much more just one award show’s doing.
Plus, the numbers don’t lie. A comparison of Google search volume for the two words reveals that while both surged in 2013, twerk saw both greater average search volume and a higher search peak than selfie did. (This is particularly true in the U.S. but still applies, if to a lesser degree, to the U.K.; though twerking has definitely infiltrated life across the pond, Oxford sometimes chooses different top words for the two regions.)
And then there’s the word itself. Both selfie and twerk have a certain of-course-ness to them, matching their meanings perfectly. But twerk is just better. It has an onomatopoeic bounce. It’s not just a glorified abbreviation. It doesn’t hide its problems behind a diminutive suffix. It’s a perfect descriptor without being self-explanatory. It’s a word people might actually talk about, debate and, yes, look for in a dictionary.
At least unhappy fans of twerk will be able to console themselves with the most recent episode of Glee, titled “The End of Twerk” — a name that’s perhaps the ultimate sign of mainstream pop-culture osmosis but, despite Oxford’s decision, unlikely to come true.