(click the link to read the published story, edited by ASU State Press Magazine Editors.)
(Originally written version, including some commentary along the way and a writer’s note at the end.)
TWERK AND SHOUT!
Long before fire and the wheel, humans figured out grunts and clicks to convey ideas.
We haven’t shut up since.
What we now call a dictionary existed long before last week, when publishers of a respected English reference decided a word was needed for pretend sexual intercourse performed on one’s feet, presumably in rhythm to synthesized drumbeats.
Why the Oxford Online Dictionary digitally enshrined twerk for the ages is not nearly as clear as what we can watch Myley Cyrus, former-Disney-daddy’s-girl-turned-glorified-skank, do over and over at the 2013 MTV music awards.
Of course, there’s nothing new about slang or sex in western pop culture.
Both have been cash crops of entertainers since before the Beatles commanded girls “twist and shout,” because “you really got me going now.”
But the speed by which ideas are being immortalized digitally is unprecedented.
“Language is changing and they’re trying to keep up,” said ASU Linguistics Professor Patricia Friederich. “There’s a stage when use is so widespread it justifies being in the dictionary.”
Friederich described herself as a descriptionist, a scientist who observes word phenomenon in societies.
She’s not interested in “right” or “wrong” judgments but how use changes through time.
“There is a natural progression,” she said. “Technology is making it a lot faster.”
She said twerk probably wouldn’t be added to other references anytime soon.
The scholars at the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford Online’s older brother) preserve thousand-year-old texts to translate meaning from their roots.
They have yet to acknowledge the hybrid of “twist” and “work.”
Regardless, pictures of Cyrus’ ecstatic writhings inspire 1000’s of words.
Their “official” title will be shelved digitally with other pop-culture-inspired English tweaks like “aint,” “refudiate,” and “irregardless.”
YOU KNOW WHAT I’M SAYING?
Cristina Garcia and three friends burst into laughter when asked about twerk.
“We were just talking about it,” the global sciences junior said with a wide grin. “One of our classmates was on the computer and said ‘this is a no-twerking-zone’ and we all just laughed.”
The group decided ‘twerking’ means to “shake one’s butt vigorously to a beat.”
“Twerk is slang,” said Alyssa Timms from across the table.
A political science junior and Army ROTC cadet, Timms said there is a difference between pop slang and useful jargon.
“Jargon in the military is more about efficiency,” she said. “It’s not made to look pretty or cool, it’s made to get things done.”
Elly Van Gelderen is a Regent’s Professor in English at ASU.
“There is no one official language,” she said “Each person has (their) own variety.”
Though Van Gelderen said slang and jargon are legitimate parts of language, they are different than words made up arbitrarily.
“Slang is a kind of linguistic dressing up,” she said. “From a linguistic point of view there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Van Gelderen teaches that meanings in language evolve through cycles, expanding and contracting.
“If a word becomes useless it is dropped,” she continued.
Van Gelderen said concepts like color, shape, and negation may have existed before language, but conditions like “if” cannot be understood looking around the world.
“When a child learns a language it builds up ideas in its head,” she said. “That’s how language goes about: re-analysis by a child.”
Both Friederich and Van Gelderen said it was natural for slang and jargon to start with exclusive language among groups trying to form identities, only to become so widespread they are accepted into general society.
“I think the vital question is, is (a word’s) use stable?” said Friederich. “We all know words that burned down quickly, so much so we associate them with a particular time.”
HUSH YO MOUF!’
About 70 students were selected at random in the Memorial Union to participate in a snapshot surey.
They were asked to identify which of three provided meanings “they most closely associate” with six commonly used words.
To allow students to focus on their own perceptions, they were assured there were “no wrong answers,” and shouldn’t worry about “official” definitions.
“These are some tough choices bro,” said Simon Patterson, a mechanical engineering junior.
He asked if the word gay was on the survey before he was handed the sheet.
It did, with choces: “cheerful,” “foolish,” or “homosexual,” each a historically widespread usage according to Oxford English Dictionary (the one still holding out on Myley.)
“Gay just always sticks out,” Patterson explained. “Maybe it’s just my generation but they really tried to enforce in grade school not to use that.”
He said teachers assumed kids meant derogatorries when they really meant something was stupid.
Just under 75% of Sun Devils surveyed primarily associate gay with sexual orientation, though its original meanings, noble and showy, had nothing to do with sex or gender.
“I think people put way too much thought into words most times,” said Jacob Cook, a secondary education junior with a minor in biology. “Words don’t necessarily mean what they mean in the dictionary, they mean the intent behind it.”
His friend Alexus Demetres is graduating with an Anthropology degree next semester. She didn’t like the available choices for awkward: “reverse,” “clumsy,” or “embarrassing.”
“I’m trying to think of a better word but I can’t,” she said. “Depending on what context you use, the meaning could change.”
Twice as many students selected “awkward” as a synonym for embarrassment.
Nearly all (94%) associated nice with “pleasant” whereas it was originally a polite adjective for someone who is “simple” or “stupid.”
Students were ambivalent over the word: manipulate. Only nine chose the word’s original meaning, “to re-shape.”
The rest almost even split between “control” and “ deceive,” the latter denoting ill will.
Respondents were assured choices were “associations” found in the dictionary. In the case of “ironic,” which has remained relatively un-changed, two of the three choices provided were commonly misused antonyms.
Three-quarters chose “coincidence,” which would be two un-related events with similarities occuring at the same time.
Such is not ironic.
An ironic situation is almost perfectly opposite of what one would expect given circumstance.
Less than 20% chose “Opposite.”
Likewise, a vast majority (89%) indicated respect is most closely related to “honor.”
Literally translated from Latin (“Re-specere: ‘to re-see,”) respect more traditionally suggested re-consideration of a person’s position and behavior. The word is contemporarily used to imply virtue, begging the question: would it be ironic to honor authority without question?
“If I decided today I was going to call a chair a table, and a cat a dog, tomorrow no one would understand each other,” said Friederich. “It’s perfectly acceptable so long as it makes sense.”
The SPM survey was designed to provoke conversation. The results indicated Millenial’s usage is very differently from the words’ original meanings.
“So many words change I don’t think its possible to say whether it’s right or wrong,” said Brianna Steele, a psychology freshman.
“My mom’s culture is very much about respect and honor rather than obey,” she said. “But my first instinct was obey.”
There is a principle in law that allows attorneys to transcend even the most complex arguments of philosophy.
Res ipsa loquitor, literally translated “let it rule the thing speaks for itself,” commands that the very essence of something be defined first by virtue of itself.
This is why trials focus on evidence, translated from Latin, “what can be seen.”
So, even though a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, it’s important to remember its thorns will prick your finger.
Friederich jokingly blamed billionaire reality TV sisters Kardashian for incorrectly using the literally in place of figuratively on a regular basis.
“Every two words that they say, one is ‘literally’ and not correctly,” she chided. “You can’t say literally unless something is to-the-letter.”
Friederich said various uses of “awkward” and “gay” don’t bother her because their meanings evolved and can be connected over time.
It is embarrassing to be clumsy or backward and many stereotype homosexuals as non-serious and overly exuberant.
“Using words that are more positive in the people you’re talking to will generate more goodwill in the world,” Friederich said. “When you change language you can also change society.”
She said new definitions appeared for “sustainable” and “green” in the last decade.
“Who uses the word really matters,” elaborated Friederich. “Some people feel (African-American) is a good term because it’s without negative connotation, while there is disagreement within that community that the word signals they are less of an American.”
“What we really need (for a word to evolve) is a social movement in one direction.”
As for Miley, creative writing junior Jeff Kronenfeld said he didn’t like “twerk” but it’s not his place to decide if it should go in the dictionary.
“Obviously it was done to try to use controversy to gain some attention,” Jeff added. “Everyone was bashing on Miley, but nobody’s said anything about the dude who was sticking ‘it’ up in there.”
THE LAST WORD: “ODE TO A UTOPIAN APOCOALYPSE
Ours is a world in which Tweets have toppled governments and newspaper comics insight slaughter.
A Florida jury recently acquitted George Zimmerman for killing an unarmed teenager outside their home, after the State failed to prove the shooter used racial slurs.
Arizona passed a law, portions of which were struck down because it allowed police to detain people for speaking languages other than English.
Academics like Freiderich and Van Gelderen not what’s right or wrong, but rather in what direction are we heading?
Are we all headed in the same direction?
Are we excelling toward an enlightened future of peace-inducing communication norms or are we careening off the rails into an Orwellian pit of misunderstanding and ignorance?
These are questions that sexualized pop icons, dictionary definitions, linguists and student surveys can’t answer, directly.
Hopefully generations to come will have something “nice” to say about a society that codifies gratuitous sexual displays because they’re popular.