A fresh, new year with fewer language annoyances

by Mellissa Martinez

At the end of the year, people tend to be pensive. We analyze past choices in an attempt to clear the way for an easier year ahead. Words, it seems, are not exempt from our scrutiny. Time magazine just came out with a list of the worst words from 2013 and requested that readers vote to banish the most irritating one altogether.

The poll includes lexical items like, ‘awesome sauce,’ ‘bromance,’ ‘epic fail,’ ‘foodie,’ ‘selfie,’ ‘swagger,’ ‘twerk’ and ‘lolz.’ Some of these expressions made the list because they are outdated or overused and others were simply labeled annoying. In 2011, the expression elected for banishment was OMG and in 2012 it was YOLO. This year, readers determined that the word they love to hate is ‘twerk,’ a new term for the age-old practice of booty shaking.

I must admit that when ‘twerk’ was elected for elimination, a slight smile crept over my face; I don’t like that word either. But soon, I began to wonder why. It is a simple blend with innocent origins. Most believe that it came from the combination of ‘twitch’ and ‘jerk,’ or was it ‘twist’ and ‘work’? In any case, it is in good company with other blends like ‘twirl’ (from ‘twist’ and ‘whirl’) and  ‘meld’  (from ‘melt’ and ‘weld’). What is it about ‘twerk’ that feels so distasteful?

Could it be the close resemblance to ‘twerp,’ a silly or annoying person? Maybe it’s the fact that the dance is impossible for anyone over the age of 25 (even that’s pushing it). This also begs the question, is it the word or the action that is causing people to protest? After all, hip gyrating has been creating distress among adults since the time of Elvis Presley. In past years, would readers have voted to eradicate ‘bump,’ ‘grind,’ ‘shake,’ ‘gyrate’ and other hip-movement related words?

There are feelings associated with words that are often hard to describe. As sociolinguists point out, we judge a person’s intelligence, kindness, dependability, ambition, leadership, sincerity, worldliness and sense of humor (among other things) based on their language. Because of our preconceived notions that come from culture, family, education and other factors, we all have a linguistic prejudice either for or against particular accents, dialects, languages and words. Pet peeves about language often come from deep-rooted ideas about what type of person uses what type of word.

In my case, some soul searching led me to the conclusion that I don’t like  ‘twerk,’ because I know so little about it. The only twerking I’ve actually seen is on YouTube. My friends don’t do it and I would certainly look ridiculous trying (I’m over 25, after all). It seems that my complete ignorance (and perhaps fear) of twerking has led me to simply not like the word. In all honesty, I feel the same way about ‘hashtag,’ ‘gluten-free,’ and ‘kettlebell.’

Just because people don’t always embrace them, doesn’t mean that new, or ungrammatical words have any intention of retiring. In fact, my all-time favorite picked-on word has remained strong against the attack on its character for over a century. In a very recent article in The Huffington Post, language writer Jonathon Owen speaks from the heart in a superb defense of  ‘irregardless.’ In the face of double-negative accusations and suggestions that the word is morphologically unsound, Mr. Owen is persistent. He writes, “When someone uses irregardless, you know exactly what it means, even if you want to pretend otherwise…the problem with irregardless is entirely social: If you use it, you’ll be thought of as uneducated.”

Like, ‘twerk,’ irregardless is also a blend. From a combination of irrespective and regardless, the word first appears in print in the late 1800s in the Portsmouth Times. In Ohio, it was colloquially common to put emphasis on a word by using a double negative. Rather than meaning the opposite of what it is used to express, irregardless was probably used emphatically to express exactly what the author intended. In any case, the word was picked up and used in a variety of dialects throughout the United States and hangs on stubbornly to its semi-word status.

Although the future of ‘twerk’ remains uncertain, I suspect it will be around for a while. Who knows? In the face of banishment, the word may even gain strength and persevere for decades, irregardless of the way people feel about it now.



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