Miley Cyrus’s energetic twerking at the Video Music Awards might make some people ask, srsly? Or it might induce severe girl crushes among her female fan following. But there is no doubt that Cyrus’s buzzworthy shimmy has made her the poster girl of lexicographical revolution. In its latest quarterly update, Oxford Dictionaries Online has added words made familiar by pop culture and social media. “Twerk” makes an entry, along with the ubiquitous “selfie” and “omnishambles”, coined by the explosive Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It.
Though the additions have been made only to the online dictionary, a more raffish version of the printed tome, many are up in arms. A dictionary is the gatekeeper of purity, it provides a template for language as it should be spoken, they feel. Now even the Oxford dictionary, the last bastion of the Queen’s English, has fallen, the lament goes. Slang and abbreviations should go back to where they belong—urban dictionaries and the wiktionary. Apols, but such arguments are mostly derp. Back in the 18th century, Samuel Johnson might have toiled for eight years on his dictionary in a heroic effort to tame the “energetic” unruliness of the English tongue, but the Oxford English Dictionary had far more demotic origins. A gargantuan project launched in the mid-19th century, it invited contributions from the general public. Thousands of volunteers sent in their definitions, the most prolific among them being W.C. Minor, a former army surgeon and an inmate of Broadmoor. It took five decades to complete and is still continually updated.
The OED democratised English, tracking language as it is spoken and understood, keeping up with new words as well as new meanings of old words. Language, vibrant and dynamic, draws life from all that surrounds it and the limits of the English tongue are constantly expanding. So a dictionary that didn’t know how to twerk would be sadly lacking.