What is the origin of ‘twerk’?
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’.
Twenty years of twerking
Oxford Dictionaries tracks new words using a variety of resources, including our own in-house corpora of real English usage. The word twerk is about 20 years old. By last year, it had generated enough currency to be added to our new words watchlist, and by this spring, we had enough evidence of usage frequency in a breadth of sources to consider adding it to our dictionaries of current English.
The word twerk seems to have arisen in the early 1990s, in the context of the bounce music scene in New Orleans. The 1993 song Jubilee All by D.J. Jubilee is often cited as the first known usage. 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.
There are many theories about the origin of this word, and since it arose in oral use, we may never know the answer for sure. We think the most likely theory is that it is an alteration of work, because that word has a history of being used in similar ways, with dancers being encouraged to “work it”. (“Twerk it” is a common phrase as well.) The “t” could be a result of blending with another word such as twist or twitch.
Oxford Dictionaries 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.