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Twerk: An Etymology

In the twenty-first century generally, and more recently in particular, the verb twerk (from which the dance called twerking is derived) has become widely known in popular culture to denote ‘the rhythmic gyrating of the lower fleshy extremities in a lascivious manner with the intent to elicit sexual arousal or laughter in ones [sic] intended audience’ (Urban Dictionary). The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as follows: ‘dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance’. And Dictionary.com, basing itself on the OED, says:

twerk
[twurk]

verb (used without object) Slang.
to dance to hip-hop or pop music in a very sensual way typically by thrusting or shaking the buttocks and hips while in a squatting or bent-over position.

Origin:
1990–95,  Americanism; probably alteration of work, as in “Work it”

There is no accepted etymology for the word, but here is a plausible hypothesis that reposes on the form-meaning relations between the initial and final sequences in twerk, on the one hand, and a synthetic meaning that can be assembled from the generalized meanings of words that contain these sequences, on the other. Far from being a portmanteau word (blend), therefore, twerk is what should be called a synthetic icon. Here is the evidence.

The initial sequence tw– occurring in words like twist, twerp, twine, twig, twit, twitter, and (N.B.) twat can be generalized to signify an icon of an additive meaning consisting of the elements ‘contorted’, ‘thin or of limited extent’, and ‘awkward or devalued’. The final sequence –rk that occurs in words like jerk, quirk, dork (N. B.!), and snark can be analyzed as connoting something that is ‘egregious’, ‘marginal’, ‘outlandish’, and ‘rude or sarcastic’.

Twerk, accordingly, is a composite or synthetic product of these semantic elements as realized in a verb that particularizes the elements by applying them to a specific kind of dance. This, then, is the most plausible etymology of the word.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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