'Twerk' and more good words gone bad: A pop culture lexicon
It was the twerk heard and watched around the world. Miley Cyrus’ instantly infamous 2013 Video Music Awards performance of “We Can’t Stop” with Robin Thicke (yes, there was a guy in unflattering stripes there too) seared retinas, enraged advocacy groups and morning newscasters, and launched a flurry of awkward parent-child conversations. The New York Times even posted a tongue-in-cheek guide to explaining the dance phenomenon to your mom and dad.
But lest we forget, “twerking” — as a dance style and a word — existed long before Cyrus’ tongue-wagging makeover. The Oxford Dictionaries Online officially defined “twerk” last week as such:
definition: “verb; [no object] informal; dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance”
proper usage: “twerk it girl, work it girl”
etymology: “1990s: probably an alteration of work”
But Miley Cyrus’ propelling of “twerk” into our immediate vernacular through an attention-grabbing performance isn’t itself a new phenomenon either (though, unfortunately, I’ll forevermore associate “twerk” with Miley’s ridiculous rumpus action). Celebrities and popular culture have been ruining or radically altering the meaning of basic English words for years. (Apparently, Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil is a particular culprit.) Here’s a working list of other innocent words whose original meaning was usurped by a famous person or form of entertainment. For comparison, we’ll provide the Oxford Dictionaries Online definition, the new pop culture connotation, and the proper way to use said word in a sentence.
ODO definition: “Go for and then bring back (someone or something) for someone.”
Proper usage: Hey, Sammie, ‘atta boy, go fetch!
Pop culture connotation: In Mean Girls, Gretchen Wieners tries ever so persistently to make “fetch” a synonym for “cool,” to Regina George’s chagrin. “That is so fetch!”
ODO definition: “The soft glowing light from the sky when the sun is below the horizon, caused by the refraction and scattering of the sun’s rays from the atmosphere.”
Proper usage: Her hair sparkled in the twilight.
Pop culture connotation: A little four-book vampire series-turned-movie saga starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson.
ODO definition: “A large American wild cat with a plain tawny to grayish coat, found from Canada to Patagonia.”
Proper usage: Did you know that cougars are part of the genus puma?
ODO definition: “A metal framework used for cooking food over an open fire; a gridiron.”
Proper usage: Boy, I sure can’t wait to fire up that grill for my family’s barbeque on Sunday!
Pop culture connotation: Lyric synonymous with “face” in songs by Rihanna, Missy Elliott, Flo Rida, and others; also a dental fashion accessory.
ODO definition: “A device consisting of a bar or wheel with a set of angled teeth in which a pawl, cog, or tooth engages, allowing motion in one direction only.”
Proper usage: Son, can you get me the ratchet from my toolbox?
Pop culture connotation: According to New York magazine, “ratchet” can be used in a derogatory or complimentary manner. While it started out describing something or someone nasty, it’s evolved to mean over-the-top or out-of-control — so having a “ratchet” weekend can be a good thing. The word is used in plenty of rap songs, and both Tyga and Machine Gun Kelly have songs called “Ratchet.”
ODO definition: “The chirp of a small or young bird.”
Proper usage: The birds were tweeting in the branches.
ODO definition: “Products given away free, typically for promotional purposes.”
Proper usage: Check out the fun bag of swag we gave our guests!
Pop culture connotation: Because it takes too long to say swagger, Soulja Boy bragged of his “Pretty Boy Swag” and promised to “Turn My Swag On,” while Justin Bieber picked it up years later as just a word he liked to end sentences with.
ODO definition: “Having a high degree of heat or a high temperature.”
Proper usage: Is it hot in here, or did I just read that Charlie Hunnam is playing Christian Grey?
Pop culture connotation: Paris Hilton, hotel heiress and The Simple Life star, used the phrase “That’s hot” for seemingly every possible situation, regardless of correct usage.
ODO definition: “A long curved fruit that grows in clusters and has soft pulpy flesh and yellow skin when ripe.”
Proper usage: I always like to keep my fruit bowl full of bananas.
Pop culture connotation:Stylist Rachel Zoe squawking “That is bananas” over designer clothing; Gwen Stefani singing “This sh– is bananas in “Hollaback Girl“; oh and something about frozen bananas and money being stored somewhere in Arrested Development.
ODO definition: “Important, serious, or significant”
Proper usage: I consider winning top blueberry cobbler at the state fair as one of my major achievements.
Pop culture connotation: Former Spice Girl and fashion designer Victoria “Posh” Beckham, famous for her steely persona, used “That’s major” as a phrase of excitement and enthusiasm.
And for fun, let’s throw some proper nouns into our makeshift pop culture dictionary:
General definition: The brand name of a volleyball.
Pop culture connotation: The only friend to a marooned Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) in Cast Away At one point, Noland says to Wilson: “We might just make it. Did that thought ever cross your brain? Well, regardless, I would rather take my chance out there on the ocean than to stay here and die on this sh–hole island, spending the rest of my life talking … TO A GODDAMN VOLLEYBALL!”
Usage: Scream “Wil-sonnn” every time you pass the volleyball aisle at Sports Authority or watch a beach volleyball game.
General definition: The name of some girl in fourth-grade homeroom.
Pop culture connotation: “The Rachel” refers to Jennifer Aniston’s perfectly layered ’90s haircut on Friends.
Usage: Does anyone actually request the Rachel anymore?
General definition: Pretentious, possibly stoned, arty, and over-educated actor.
Pop culture connotation: Pretentious, possibly stoned, arty, or over-educated … anyone. See his Comedy Central Roast.
Usage: Do you really need another Ph.D.? Who are you, James Franco?
General definition: Vassar-educated Princess Diaries breakout star and Les Misérables scene-stealer.
Pop culture connotation: That psychotically happy singing girl.
Usage: Dude, I get that you’re happy about my job promotion, but no need to get all Anne Hathaway on me. We’re in public. (Also see: Pollyanna.)
What are some other innocent words that pop culture has changed forever? Tell us in the comments!