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Twerking since 1820: an OED antedating

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,’ whose refrain exhorted dancers to ‘twerk, baby, twerk.’ 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.

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.

A version of this blog post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “Engraving by George Stodart after a monument of Mary and Percy Shelley” by Henry Weekes (1853). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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