But Mary Shelley, acclaimed author of “Frankenstein” and paragon of classic literature, would merely have shrugged. She had been talking about “twerking” nearly two centuries earlier.
That’s according to editors at the Oxford English Dictionary, who announced Thursday that the word that has alternately been made into a shorthand for the appropriation of culture and the decline of all mankind would not only be entering the dictionary (the official OED, that is, not the more slang-oriented Oxford Dictionaries Online, which accepted it in 2013) but that its use goes back far longer than any of us had ever considered. All the way to 1820, to none other than Shelley.
True to form, the first use was mildly derogatory.
“Really the Germans do allow themselves such twists and twerks of the pen,” her stepbrother Charles Clairmont wrote in a letter to Shelley, complaining of German’s sloppy handwriting.
The word appeared as a verb about 20 years later, an amalgam of “twist” and “jerk,” with overtones of “work” mixed in.
“And it never really went away after that,” Fiona McPherson, a senior editor for the OED, told The Washington Post.
In researching the word’s etymology, McPherson found it in novels and newspapers and high-brow literary journals. It even graced the pages of The Washington Post, in a 1952 article about the arrival of the Eisenhower administration and its impact on the D.C. social scene.
“Washington cliff-dwellers are twittering, twerk-ing, and titillating,” the story opened. “There is nothing they love more than a change of administrations, and since most of them are Republicans anyway, they are preening their social feathers, whetting their social axes, and getting ready for the Eisenhower administration as if it was to be the first rain after a 20-year drought on the social Sahara of Washington.”
Clearly, “twerking” is not the only thing that hasn’t changed in the past five decades.
It is worth noting that the dance we now refer to as “twerking” evolved entirely separately of the term — it has a long, complex history in West African culture that predates even venerable Mrs. Shelley.
The dance and the word first coalesced in 1993, according to McPherson, in the song “Do The Jubilee All” by New Orleans rapper DJ Jubilee. It appeared in a New Orleans Times-Picayune story three years later, in an article talking about the dance. For more than a decade, “twerking” flourished in hip hop music videos and on Urban Dictionary. Then Cyrus adopted the dance, and the whole Internet went wild.
When asked if there was a certain satisfaction in uncovering a storied history for a word that has been so thoroughly maligned, McPherson demurred.
“We have to look at it completely dispassionately,” she said, with scholarly discretion. “Has this word reached a general level of currency? Has it has made a mark on the language? If the answer is yes, then we add it [to the OED].”
Still, she said, it is interesting to delve into a supposedly modern concept’s centuries-old backstory.
“It shows you it’s got a much deeper history than you’d initially thought,” she said.