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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

selfie (2010’s | internese | “self-portrait”)
twerk (2010’s | journalese (music) | “shake your booty”)

These words are too new to say much about, but they both effloresced violently recently, and they have occasioned no end of cultural commentary. Their chronological pattern is similar: sporadic appearances at best before 2012, followed by cautious acceptance, followed by the great outburst that was 2013. “Selfie” was named Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries last year, while “twerk” was flung into everyone’s consciousness by the lovely, infamous Miley Cyrus. “Twerk” probably has been around longer; it shows up a few years earlier in LexisNexis (hardly the most promising source of information on such an expression, I’ll admit). I’ve read it said that “twerk” goes back to the nineties, but I wasn’t frequenting the right clubs and can’t say one way or another. No one disputes that the word is characteristic of African-American youth culture; it may be a corruption of the exhortation “work it,” shouted to dancers. The Oxford blog records the first instance of “selfie” in 2002 in Australia and posits an Australian origin (I can add that an unusually high percentage of hits in LexisNexis come from Australian periodicals).

“Twerking” is a form of dancing, solo or with a partner, kind of a specialized, advanced form of what we used to call “shaking your booty.” You bend at the knees and grind or gyrate your tuchus. I’m not sure when it started showing up in rap lyrics (the Hip Hop Word Count doesn’t seem to be available), but that was about the only place it showed up for a long time. Around 2010, a rapper named Kstylis released some songs (and videos) with the sole purpose of encouraging female listeners to twerk. He seems to have played a role in the diffusion of the term, right around the same time it started turning up in disapproving editorials. (Coincidence? You be the judge!) It didn’t really become the property of mass mainstream culture until Miley Cyrus appropriated it last year; particularly after her performance with Robin Thicke at the VMA awards in August.

From its humble roots down under, “selfie” — a photographic self-portrait usually taken at arm’s length with a tablet, phone, or digital camera — also took a few years to get established. Hillary Clinton, of all people, gave the word a boost in 2012 in responding to a satirical web site entitled “Tweets from Hillary.” The brainchild of two Washington publicists, TFH lasted just long enough for Hillary herself to take note of it, crediting one of the authors with a “nice selfie.” That seems to have been about the first time anyone with any profile used the word in public. Now the word is almost as common as the thing; here in New York, it’s impossible to walk a block without passing someone smiling inanely into their smartphone. (The practice has cut down quite a bit on the old custom of asking passing strangers to take your picture so you can prove you were in New York.) “Selfie” seems more ripe for adaptation than “twerk.” One clever inventor has come up with a bicycle storage device called the “Shelfie.” A self-portrait taken by a tall, willowy young woman ought to be called a “sylphie.”

These words have come into their own largely due to the rise of social media. Twerking is a Youtube phenomenon, and selfies are inextricably linked with Facebook, either as the easiest way to generate a profile picture (although using any image except your own face seems to be the rule on Facebook) or simply as a place to show your friends what you’ve been up to. In this case, our new networks (net-twerks?) have acted more as megaphones, since both words predated widespread use of social media, but Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest are going to have an effect on our language. The main effect of social media on American English will probably amount to maiming it, but at least we’re getting some new words out of our new toys.

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