If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you’ve probably noticed that Syria is a goddamned disaster right now, or that Miley Cyrus ground her ass against some Betelgeuse-looking dude at some sort of award ceremony that only teenagers watch. Maybe you also stumbled across an article somewhere about the word “twerk” being added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online. And people: Lost. Their. Minds. If you’re a masochist like myself, perhaps you wandered into the comment section of the CNN story and saw the OUTRAGE. In addition to claiming that twerk is not a word, adding twerk to the OED online is apparently going to cause the decline of: language, education, society, writing, people’s brains, writer’s careers, teacher’s careers, and the entire human species. (Really?! One word will doom 7 billion people, including the roughly 5.5 billion people who don’t speak English?!?! What a powerful non-word.)
People even suggested there will eventually be two versions of the dictionary: one for “real” words, like plebian and hirsute, and another dictionary for made up imaginary words, like twerk, liger, and Tea-Bagger. Others suggested the OEDo is simply adding this word to the dictionary so it can stay relevant with the “hip” crowd (we all know dictionaries are constantly striving to keep up with the latest trends in youth culture). The point is: it doesn’t really matter if they’re adding it to the dictionary or not. It is a word, whether it’s in the dictionary or not. Words can exist even if they’re not in the dictionary. *gasp!*
But you can’t just make up words!
Of course you can. It’s been happening since the dawn of language, and I guarantee you, the dawn of the English language happened a few years before the first dictionary was written. (Interestingly enough, ancient Arabic dictionaries organized their words by rhyme. Super awesome if you were an ancient Arabic Dr. Seuss!)
Let’s take google, for example. It began as a proper noun (the name of a company), and morphed into a verb (google, googles, googling, googled). It appeared in our language naturally, and then someone stuck it in the dictionary. The dictionary didn’t make google a word; it simply documented its use and acceptance in the larger lexicon.
Well, twerking is still not a word!
Why not? Have you looked up the meaning of the word word? Google it! Or open up your battered Webster’s and find word in there and look up the meaning of word. (My Webster’s is in the blue section of my books because I colorgorize my books. Colorgorize. Bet you can guess what that word means.) In short, a word is the smallest meaningful unit of language.
Thus, if an utterance has meaning associated with it, it’s a word. Your adorable one-year-old who uses Elbo instead of the German word for Grandma (Oma), and now she calls Granny Elbo all the time—that’s her word for Grandma. Or, more accurately, that’s the word she uses to describe the older lady in her life who brings her presents, treats, and smells sort of like the carpet your one-year-old loves to stuff her face into. It’s not a word that will ever be listed in the dictionary because it’s a word unique to your child, but it’s a word nevertheless.
But twerk is not a legitimate word.
Our culture operates from the idea that language is “pure,” and non-standard words and dialects are just corruptions of the language. People who don’t believe twerk is a word and shouldn’t be added to the dictionary seem to believe it will pollute our language, and believe it’s important to preserve English. They deny twerk’s legitimacy by attacking where it came from, saying “some black strippers” made it up. That doesn’t a. make them correct about the word origins and b. doesn’t mean it’s not a word.
An underlying theme in opposing adding twerk to the OEDo has been racially tinged; black slang isn’t legitimate and has no place in the (arguably whitest of white) dictionary. In the past, people have claimed lexical contributions from the black community were just slang and not deserving of being included in legitimate speech. People said Ebonics isn’t a real dialect; it’s just lazy black people speech. Even saying things like “She talks like she’s black” ascribe race to language use. And there’s a perceived value in using the “right” language.
By keeping language pure, and deriding language elements that don’t fit into the parameters of standard English (the language of the rich and powerful), the culture of power can dismiss people based on the way they speak, the words they use, and how they write.
The idea that there’s a right way to speak and write comes out of the 19th century prescriptivists’ efforts to standardize the use of language and writing—it was their response to growing literacy in the lower classes. These prescriptivists brought us such classics as “Never end a sentence with a preposition,” and “Never split infinitives.” (They came up with these rules based on an incorrect understanding of English, by the way.) As a result, we’ve been led to believe there’s a right way to talk and a wrong way to talk. That there are certain words that are words, and others that are not; the smart, educated people know the difference. If your language deviates from the norm, then you ain’t part of dem smart people. This message has percolated through our education system and created yet another obstacle to success for those who are already facing numerous obstacles: lower socio-economic groups and minorities.
Ugh, well I still don’t like the word twerking. It brings up painful Miley Cyrus images…
That’s fine. I don’t like the word slacks. And I hate what my mouth does every time I have to say the word moist. You don’t have to like the word for it to be a word. But before you say something isn’t something, you should look up the definition of the something you’re saying it’s not, just in case it actually is.
And Miley’s tongue still haunts my dreams.