No, “Twerk” and “Selfie” Have Not Been Added to the Oxford English Dictionary

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 28 2013 1:43 PM

No, “Twerk” and “Selfie” Have Not Been Added to the Oxford English Dictionary

Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs
Sorry, Miley.

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for MTV

The Internet is in an uproar today over the reported news that twerk and selfie (not to mention other slang like srsly, vom, and TL;DR), have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Everywhere from BBC News to Reuters to NBC News to the Chicago Tribune has reported this story, prompting outraged obituaries everywhere decrying the very end of the English language.

There’s only one problem: This story is 100 percent wrong. Twerk and selfie are not being added to the Oxford English Dictionary, and they never were.

The false reports stem from a failure to make the crucial distinction between the Oxford English Dictionary and Oxford Dictionaries Online. You might not fault anybody for missing the difference of one or two words, but Oxford University Press, which oversees them both, could not have been more clear about this in their announcement of the additions

It is important to note that the new words mentioned above have been added to Oxford Dictionaries Online, not the Oxford English Dictionary. Why is this?
• The dictionary content in ODO focuses on current English and includes modern meanings and uses of words
• The OED, on the other hand, is a historical dictionary and it forms a record of all the core words and meanings in English over more than 1,000 years, from Old English to the present day, including many obsolete and historical terms. Words are never removed from the OED.
Advertisement

To emphasize, the ODO focuses on contemporary English and is updated more quickly, while it generally takes longer for words to make it into the OED. Prescriptivists can rest easy, for now: We probably won’t be seeing twerk or selfie or squee in the pages of the OED anytime soon.

So why are we seeing so many false reports? Oxford University Press’ clarification, while bolded, does come near the bottom of their press release, so perhaps some journalists just looked at it and went “TL;DR.”

And I can’t help but wonder whether some portion of these writers avoided the distinction deliberately, to boost their article’s outrage factor and, in turn, their page views. Many articles report that the terms have been “Added to Oxford Dictionary,” which is correct, but a bit misleading. Even the New York Times went with the headline “Oxford Dictionary Learns How to ‘Twerk,’ ” and simply notes, within the article, that “Oxford Dictionaries … is responsible for reference works including the Oxford English Dictionary,” without ever saying that the dictionary in question is a different one entirely. (And this is far from the first time this has happened.)

Credit goes to the Associated Press, ABC News, Forbes, Time, Quartz, and the other outlets who got it right. Their articles might be less buzzworthy, but at least they’re not deliberately confusing people—and making us all dumber—just to boost page views. That’s the kind of thing that really makes me want to vom.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Doublex

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Politico Wonders Why Gabby Giffords Is So “Ruthless” on Gun Control

Behold
Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?