Oxford Dictionaries adds ‘twerk,’ ‘FOMO,’ ‘selfie,’ and other words that make me vom


Joe Fenich videos himself as he and his friends careen down a giant water slide they constructed on the terraces of Franklin Park in Yakima, Wash. Aug. 14, 2013. Ciara Saunders, one of the participants, said she put out a call on Twitter earlier in the day for the gathering and more than a dozen of their friends showed up. (GORDON KING/Yakima Herald-Republic/AP)
August 28, 2013

Can I speak srsly here? Style asked me to look over a list of the latest words, such as that one (which simply means “seriously”), that were added Wednesday to a resource called Oxford Dictionaries Online. Apparently the ODO offers such linguist updates every quarter, being a dictionary of the moment, a lexicon of contemporary usage. Nearly all the new words listed are current slang employed by young people and digital junkies, usually the same thing.

This is certainly not my world. FOMO, for example, means “fear of missing out: anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.” I can confidently say that I have never experienced FOMO in quite this form, since I don’t participate in any social media. Still, like most people, I know that the real party will always be happening in the next room.

Back in my day, the revered 1960s — cue “Where have all the flowers gone?” — we never trusted anyone over 30; these days, it would be unseemly, even pathetic for anyone older than 30 to use a term like “squee” or “twerk” or “vom.” Or even to be aware of them and their meanings. I certainly wasn’t. Such words are useful — all words are useful — but most of this vogue lingo is wholly restricted to a certain demographic (kids with smartphones) and a certain context (instant messaging and Twitter).

“Squee,” by the way, is an exclamation of “great delight or excitement.” According to the ODO, it originated from “squeal.” No doubt, but I think the screech of a squeegee on a windshield might also play its part. “Twerk” means to “dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low squatting stance.” I’m told by an informed source — my youngest son — that it is associated chiefly with the actress Miley Cyrus. It would be wildly inappropriate for a gentleman my age to recognize, let alone employ, this word. I’ll stick with “bump and grind.” Vom is simply a shortened form of vomit. It saves two characters when twittering. Or tweeting. Whatever.

Like so much digital terminology, many of these new words are ugly. Ever since the computer age got going, it has gravitated to repulsive-sounding terminology, starting with all forms of “blog.” Writer, author, even journalist: All these sound like admirable professions. But blogger. Yech. I know the term’s origin — Web log — and I understand how people naturally gravitate to contractions, but the end result is still repulsive. Don’t even get me started on “the blogosphere.”


Miley Cyrus’s MTV Video Music Awards performance on Aug. 25 largely made news for her “twerking” moves. (Rick Diamond/Getty Images for MTV)

Unfortunately, rebarbative lingo seems here to stay: Jorts are defined as “shorts made of denim fabric” and presumably arose by eliding “jeans” and “shorts.” I imagine that “Klaatu barada nikto” is the international clothing chain behind “Jorts.” (My little joke: Think “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”) Widely used already, a MOOC is “a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people.” This phenomenon is clearly here to stay, but “I’m taking a MOOC” sounds disgustingly lavatorial. A “selfie” is a photograph of oneself, typically “with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” When I first glanced at the list, I thought it said “selkie,” and I was impressed that Scottish merpeople were now on the cutting edge.

A few of this quarter’s new words seem not at all new. Or maybe they’ve only recently made their way to the dreaming spires of Oxford. A “blondie” — meaning, in dictionary language, “a small square of dense, pale-coloured cake, typically of a butterscotch or vanilla flavour” — has surely been around as long as its darker brother, the brownie. Didn’t actress Jean Seberg have a “pixie cut” 50 years ago in “Breathless”? It can’t be a new word, can it? “Balayage,” a particular way of highlighting the hair, seems like something that a French hairdresser would toss around and nobody else. “Space tourism” simply joins two familiar words together in a new context. It’s a fresh concept but hardly a new word. Same goes for “street food.”

I’ve read that the term “omnishambles” derives from a British television show and was voted the most popular new word of last year. (Who does this voting, and where do they cast their ballots?) “Omnishambles” is defined as “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.” Other than being an apt summary of my life, I don’t see how this word differs from plain old “shambles.” Which also describes my house.

It’s a real pity that former federal prosecutor Jim Letten’s recent use of “hobbit” — to mean roughly sleazebag or scum — just missed this quarter’s cutoff time. I hope it catches on. It comes trippingly off the tongue as a term of derision. (Sorry, Bilbo.) I’m sure it’ll appear next quarter. In truth, it seems about as hard to get into the ODO as it does to get into Dr. Nick’s Hollywood Upstairs Medical College.

Still, of all the new words added to the Oxford Dictionaries Online, perhaps the most chilling is the acronym “TL;DR.” I sometimes fear that everything I value in the way of literature and scholarship will be casually dismissed with those letters: “Too Long; Didn’t Read.” Sorry, Leo. Sorry, Marcel.

One last observation: Most of these new words and acronyms are probably never meant to be spoken by actual human beings. They live and breathe only on the tiny screen. There, in the strange telegraphese of the smartphone, they quickly convey information and shrill emotion through typographic grunts and squeals. Or, rather, squees. No doubt they have their place, but let them stay there.

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