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twerk origin

What is the origin of ‘twerk’?

When the word twerk burst into the global vocabulary of English a few years ago with reference to a dance involving thrusting movements of the bottom and hips, most accounts of its origin pointed in the same direction, to the New Orleans ‘bounce’ music scene of the 1990s, and in particular to a 1993 recording by DJ Jubilee, ‘Jubilee All’. The song repeats the refrain “Shake baby, shake baby, shake, shake, shake… Twerk baby, twerk baby, twerk, twerk, twerk.” It’s likely that the word was being used in clubs and at parties before that, as an exhortation to dancers. By the mid-1990s, we see evidence of twerk being used online in newsgroups to describe a specific type of dancing.

However, information in a new entry published in the historical Oxford English Dictionary this month, as part of the June 2015 update, reveals that the word was in fact present in English more than 170 years earlier.

The OED’s new entry gives 1820 as the first date for the word twerk, then used as a noun meaning ‘a twisting or jerking movement; a twitch’ and originally spelled twirk. This is the first example of the noun found by the OED’s researchers, from a letter to the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley:

Really the Germans do allow themselves such twists & twirks of the pen, that it would puzzle any one. (1820 Charles Clairmont, Letter, 26 Feb.)

The noun eventually developed other senses, referring to ‘an ineffectual or worthless person; a fool, a “jerk”’ by 1928; to ‘a (minor) change or variation, esp. of an odd or negative type; a twist’ by 1940; and, by the late 1990s, to the notorious dance.

Twerk was being used as a verb by 1848, meaning ‘to move (something) with a twitching, twisting, or jerking motion’. Early examples show people twerking their spurs, thumbs, and hats, and (in intransitive use) to a kitten’s tail twerking. The meaning referring to the dance continues to be attested first in the 1993 song by DJ Jubilee, but the OED’s editors believe that these meanings are ultimately connected and represent the same word, deriving most likely from a blend of twist or twitch and jerk, although the verbal use relating to the dance is probably influenced by similar uses of the verb work.

Do you spell it twirk or twerk?

In spite of the fact that the twirk spelling is earlier, the OED has made the twerk spelling the headword form. This is because while it is a later development, it is the most common spelling overall, particularly in recent use. Usage referring to the dance is most often spelled with an e, but there are some exceptions, for instance in this example from 1999:

Teens at the Waggaman Playground gym gathered around the dance floor to ‘twirk’. For my adult readers, I’ll translate for you. Twirk is the latest dance move. (1999 Times-Picayune (New Orleans) (Westwego ed.) 11 Mar., p. 3f 4/1)

The variety of spellings used in all meanings made OED editors confident that the various twirks and twerks were properly considered as the same word, and this new perspective presents a very different narrative of the word’s history. Instead of being a spontaneous coinage in 1990s New Orleans, twerk is seen as an old word which filled a number of roles in English from the nineteenth century through the twentieth and into the twenty-first, but did not become widely current in our vocabulary until the very recent ubiquity of a particular rump-shaking dance move.

Well, if you hadn’t heard of the word twerk before this week, chances are you are now well and truly aware of its existence, thanks to Miley Cyrus’s well documented performance at MTV’s VMAs. If you’re unsure of its meaning, you’re in luck, as we added the word to Oxford Dictionaries Online in our recent update. ‘Twerk’ may be the word of the moment, but we’ve been tracking its usage for a while now to see if it is used frequently enough to be deemed worthy of an entry. When did the word first come onto our radar? And what are its origins? Katherine Martin, Head of US Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, investigates the phenomenon that is ‘twerking’.

OxfordDictionaries.com labels the word as informal to reflect the fact that so far our evidence shows that it is chiefly used in informal contexts. However, if the word is widely adopted in mainstream use, that could change.  The current public reaction to twerking is reminiscent in some ways of how the twisting craze was regarded in the early 1960s, when it was first popularized by Chubby Checker’s song, the Twist. Only time will tell if twerking will similarly be embraced by the general public.

Update 25/6/2015: This post has been updated to reflect the work done by OED researchers, who traced the word ‘twerk’ back to 1820. 

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