Twerking: Our Words Matter

I turned on National Public Radio in my car to hear local and national news.

I heard a word that I’ve never heard before: “Twerking”

As an educated person, with a degree in English Literature, this new word intrigued me. If NPR is using it, it must be a real word. Right? I’d never heard it before.

At the first stop light, I did what every English Nerd does with a new word: I grabbed the Webster’s Dictionary from the backseat of my car and searched frantically.

Nothing. No twerk. No twerking. Tweet, tweeter, tweezers, twelve, twenty, twerp, twice, twiddle. Twerk wasn’t there.

Hmmm. Maybe “twerking” was a new word from some wonderful obscure novel I hadn’t heard of yet. Maybe it was like “Muggle” in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter Series or “Sneetch” of Dr. Seuss fame. I turned up the radio to catch the rest of the story. Something about Miley Cyrus. Something about an awards show.

video killed the radio star MTV

It wasn’t until I sat in front of a computer, and could search the word “twerking,” before I actually understood it’s definition.

There it was. It was a part of mainstream headlines. CNN. NPR. It wasn’t from a book review. It was headline news.

(As defined by and quoted from the website), Twerking is defined this way: “Also known as dirty dancing. When a woman slams her bottom on a mans pelvic area while dancing. The man can also lunge his pelvic area forward for a harder bang. This is usually performed in a dance club along with upbeat music.” Example sentences include: “Damn, her ass was twerkin’ on my junk, I hope she didn’t feel my shlong.” And “I saw you twerking with that girl. That ass was bouncing all over you”

Aside from The Urban Dictionary, there is no other dictionary in the world—in print or online—that recognizes the word “twerking”. CNN and NPR ran lead stories this morning using “twerking”in the headline, a word that is not recognized by any academic or professional institution.

The Onion has poked fun. Bloggers have made some comments about the raunchy performance. The socially-enlightened have mused about the cultural context of Ms. Cyrus’ dancing. Actor Will Smith and his family were visibly aghast as they sat in the audience for the presentation. We can talk forever about slut-shaming, womanhood, white-black issues and our young female icons.

milet cyrus

I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about words.

I’m not saying that made-up words are bad. Shakespeare’s use of the word “swagger” in Midsummer Night’s Dream is a wonderful way to use a new word. In the context of Act 3, Scene 1, swagger was an onamonapia presentation of what was happening in the scene. Swagger made sense. Words have context. Words mean something.

As a poet and a writer, words mean something to me. As a person who updates her Facebook status and sends emails, I’m pretty sure that words mean something to other people as well.

I received my degree in English Literature from UC Davis less than a decade ago. It was before Facebook and social media. Myspace had barely begun to break ground. We used newspapers and magazines to read articles; they weren’t just for packing boxes while moving. People thought carefully about what they said. There was something about the tangible feel of print on paper that made journalists careful about the words they chose.  Clearly, those days are gone.

video killed the radio star

I have been worried about words. I have been weary about media. I had hoped that there was still some level of journalistic integrity left in America.

We need journalistic integrity in America more than we have ever needed it.

Today, I have lost all hope.

As a country, we have riches. We are privileged. We have clean water. We have incredible infrastructure. There is food on our grocery store shelves. Not all of our citizens are receiving the trickle down, many remain hungry, without water and food. That’s a shameful tragedy. As a nation, we have our share of problems. Still, as a nation, we have much, much more than most people who live on this earth with us.

Included in our riches, we have the luxury and necessity of a free press.

We have a constitutional precedent that no other county on earth has. We have, written into the law of our land, the first amendment of our constitution, an amendment that sanctions words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

When our forefathers wrote that we should have freedom of press, it wasn’t for the word “twerking”.

Today, we live in a world climate, a world that our forefathers could have scarcely imagined. We live in a world economy. We live with a world awareness. We live in this world together. We live altogether on this earth. America and its media cannot deny its power. America has a means that most of the world doesn’t have and cannot even fathom.

What Egypt is going through today, is what we are all going through, because it is something we can all have an impact on. What Syria is going though, is something we are also suffering. Where there is hunger, there could be food. Where there is disease, there could be inoculation. Where there is war, there could be peace.

We have more knowledge than ever. We have more access than ever. We have more technology than ever. We have more understanding than we have ever had on earth.

For the first time in the world’s history, we have 24/7 access to the rest of the world.

Today, in the greatest world-power on our earth, in the country with the greatest constitution, in a place that has the most unprecedented, historical access to words, in a place where words are handed to citizens by our government”s gospel, in a place where our media is protected by law, our nation’s sanctioned media decided to lead the day’s stories with Miley Cyrus and the way she dances, using a word that most people had to look up on the internet and that doesn’t exist except in slang.

The media is degraded. The excuses are terrible.

No more excuses. We could do better. We have to do better.

Words matter.

One Response to this post.

  1. Don Pelton's Gravatar

    Posted by Don Pelton on 27.08.13 at 3:51 am

    Thanks Hilary. Good post.

    Here’s a website that supports your point — with a heavy does of irony — about the questionable state of journalistic integrity:

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