language corner

Tweaking ‘twerk’

Word of the Year lists
December 23, 2013

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Time for all the familiar clichés, misused or mispunctuated tho’ they may be, and time for the meaningless “XXX of the Year” lists.

But who are we to sniff at such treasured traditions? For people who deal with words, the “Words of the Year” lists can be interesting, if specious.

As we said at the beginning of 2012, the picks for WOTY are frequently so fleeting that many “do not survive much beyond the year in which they were singled out.” In 2011, for example,, which picks a WOTY because it “captures the character” of the year, “regardless of its popularity or ubiquity,” chose “tergiversate,” which means, effectively, to flip-flop. It has not yet caught on in popular usage. This year’s selection was “privacy,” which at least is a word most people know, even if they and their government don’t agree on what it means.

For the first time, also picked the “misspelling of the year“: “furlough,” which was misspelled “furlow,” “furlo,” and “ferlow” by people looking it up on the site. (It’s hard to believe, as the site says, that no one looking up “sequester” or “sequestration” misspelled those.)

Before the lists were released, one safe bet seemed to be “twerk” (rhymes with “jerk”). But Oxford, which publishes dictionaries throughout the English-speaking diaspora and requires that its WOTY “demonstrate some kind of prominence over the preceding year or so,” chose “selfie.” “Twerk” was on its shortlist, as were “bedroom tax” (from a UK plan to penalize households “that were receiving housing benefit and that were judged to have bedrooms surplus to their requirements”) and “olinguito” (a mammal discovered in South America), among others.

“Twerk” and “olinguito” were on the Collins Dictionary shortlist, too, which opted for “geek” as its WOTY, acknowledging its morphing from “a boring and unattractive social misfit” to “a person who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject.”

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Grant Barrett of public radio’s A Way With Words included “twerk” on his list, along with “ITAP” (I took a picture; see “selfie”), “sharknado,” and “Obamacare.”

“Bitcoin” appeared on lots of lists, too, some of them lexicographical, and some of them regulatory.

Global Language Monitor chose “404.” Other top GLM choices, including “fail!” and “hashtag,” could indicate that the site, which offers “‘algorithmic services’ to help worldwide customers protect, defend, and nurture their branded products and entities,” lags actual word usage by a year or three. (“Hashtag” was the American Dialect Society’s WOTY last year; its 2013 WOTY will be selected in January.) To be fair, “twerk” was on GLM’s shortlist, and it chose “twerk” as its “Top Teleword of the 2012-1013 TV season.”

Merriam-Webster also picks its WOTY based on “the greatest increase in lookups this year as compared to last year,” but its list is far less faddish. “Twerk” was nowhere to be found. The top word this year was … “science.” “A wide variety of discussions centered on science this year, from climate change to educational policy,” M-W’s editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski, said. Other top words included “paradox,” “ethics,” “metaphor,” and “visceral.”

Use all those words in a sentence and you can describe “twerk”–and its impact.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.