Tag Archives: indefinite article

Little Things DO Matter – Even Little Words

Sometimes the linguistic stars align and a lexical event of supernova proportions takes place. More specifically, unless you’ve been taking a vacation on an island without an internet connection or phone service [1] you’ve doubtless learned about the word twerk and, if you’re really unlucky, seen it demonstrated by pop princess Hannah Montana Miley Cyrus. Once the idol of millions of teen girls across the world, Miley is now the idol of millions of aged perverts who can’t wait for her to make a real porn movie instead of the “R”-rated performance she provided for the VMA Awards ceremony on August 25th, 2013.

Public domain image

Let’s twerk!

Tempting as it is to pander to the prurient and show you videos and pictures, there’s little need to do that because at this moment in time as I suspect 50% of the world’s internet content is already full of such material, and if you start typing “Miley Cyrus” into your search engine, you’ll probably get millions of links even before you get past the third “l” in her name!

As an SLP working in AAC, my interest is strictly professional and concerns the revelation from August 28th that twerk has officially entered the Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) site – that’s just three days after Miley’s graphic demonstration. So, just in case you are unsure, here’s the actual definition of twerk as used by Oxford:

Pronunciation: /twəːk/
Verb [no object]: informal.
Dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.

Surprisingly, it was first noted in the 1990’s, and it is thought to be an alteration of the word work in the sense of “work it, baby, work it.” Normally when new words are added to the ODO, it’s fairly low-key and only word nerds really care. However, in this instance, it’s as if the Oxford marketing department had contracted with Miley to do her bump-and-grind act purely to promote the “release” of the new word – and a spectacular release it was! As I write, typing twerk into Google search returns 20,300,000 hits. Hell, “The Speech Dudes” only gets a paltry 4,990,000 hits!

So let’s think a little about what we can learn from this little episode because we, the Dudes, would like to think of our little piece of cyberspace here as being educational – in the most laid-back of ways, of course.

When the inclusion of twerk was announced to the world, thousands of commentators leaped forward to say that it was now a “real word” because it was “in the dictionary.” I want you all to take another look at that second phrase, “in the dictionary.” The significant element is the use of the word the as a determiner that precedes a noun. Typically, we use the – often referred to as the definite article – to refer to a single, specific thing. But we use the word a (0r an) – the indefinite article – to refer to one of many things. There is a world of difference between “Pass me the pencil” and “Pass me a pencil.” There’s an even bigger difference between, “Hey, you’re just the man!” and “Hey, you’re just a man!” And although some folks treat the and a/an as merely “fillers” that can be ignored, there are some occasions where they are absolutely crucial to the meaning of a sentence. Tell me “You’re the shit!” and I’m happy; tell me “You’re a shit!” and I’m a wee bit upset.

In this instance, the reality is that twerk has been added to a dictionary and not the dictionary. If it had been added to the dictionary, we’d have had to be clear which one that was, and then agree that is was the only one that matters. For me, “the dictionary” is the 20-volume complete Oxford English Dictionary (OED), 2nd edition, and anything else is “a dictionary.” But for twerk, as I mentioned earlier, the dictionary in question is the Oxford Dictionaries Online dictionary, which is a very different beast than the OED. A number of commentators failed to mention this, and indeed some suggested it was the OED.

Picture of a dictionary

Is it in the dictionary?

The ODO is what you would call a “living dictionary,” which is aimed at capturing the global lexicon as it exists now. It’s a less profane and more researched version of the Urban Dictionary, which is also a living dictionary but without vetting or investigation. Words can, in fact, be taken out of the ODO if they cease to be used, whereas once a word gets into the OED, it never leaves. This is because the OED is a “historical dictionary” that aims to trace the meanings of a word from its earliest known use through to either its demise (anyone used shrepe [2] lately?) or its latest meaning. For example awful didn’t originally mean “terrible” but “wonderful” – it referred to something that left you full of awe.

Something else we can learn is the speed at which a new word can be used in its constituent morphological forms i.e. twerk, twerking, twerks, and twerked. Using ghits [3], we see the following hit figures, which gives us some idea of the distribution of the word as a whole [4]:

     twerk: 20,300,000
     twerking: 17,700,000
     twerks: 2,850,00
     twerked: 439,000

Not surprisingly, we find that an adjective form also exists, twerky (71,200 ghits) but there’s a dearth of adverbial examples with twerkily only scoring 84 ghits, which is close to nothing. I should, however, now total all these up because they are all forms of the base form twerk, pushing the total ghit score up from 20,300,000 to just over double at 41,360,200.

For folks working on teaching vocabulary, the “teachable moment” from the whole Miley Cyrus debacle would be to use the word twerk as a springboard for reinforcing regular morphology. Thus, any worksheet along the following lines would be splendid:

“Miley Cyrus says she likes to TWERK. In fact, she TWERK___ a lot! We saw a video yesterday and she was TWERK____. Some people think she shouldn’t have TWERK___ at all.” [5]

So there you have it. Vocabulary, morphology, frequency studies, and the critical importance of the definite and indefinite articles. And who says the Speech Dudes site isn’t educational?

Notes
[1] If you’ve never done this, it’s highly recommended. It’s what used to be called a vacation, when you went away to somewhere very different from your home and spent one or two weeks doing fun and relaxing things that were not work related. Sadly, many people are now permanently connected to their jobs via smart technology and actually start their vacation mornings by checking work emails or making a couple of calls. This is not called a vacation; it’s called working from home – for which you don’t get paid. Cutting yourself off from the world is surprisingly difficult and something you really have to plan for and work at. Try it – and see if you have the will to do it!

[2] Shrepe means “to scratch” and comes from the Old English screpan=to scrape, which in turn came from  Old Norse skrapa=to scrape or erase, and ultimately from an unattested but re-constructed Germanic word *skrap-=scrape. Shrepe sadly went out of fashion in the 13th century but it’s good to pull such words out of the closet once in a while and wear them for just a day.

[3] Ghit is short for “Google hit,” which is the number of hits an entry in the Google search box gets. It appears just below the search term in a phrase such as About 39,300 results (0.13 seconds). It’s not an official measure in the world of corpus linguistics but it a pretty useful “quick and dirty” way of estimating web frequencies. If you find a word or phrase that only has ONE ghit, it’s called a googlewhack. Try slipping that one into your next conversation at the bar.

[4] Trying to define a “word” is not as easy as you might think. For example, are eat, eats, eating, ate, and eaten 5 words or just one? After all, the difference between eat and eats is simply based on whether you are talking about the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person i.e. I/you/we/they eat but he/she/it eats. One way to get around this is to talk about something called a LEMMA, which is basically the dictionary form of a verb – such as twerk. A dictionary would, for instance, have the word eat as an entry, but not necessarily eats, eating, or eaten. It would, however, include ate because it’s a very irregular form of the lemma, eat.

[5] I admit that shamelessly using Miley Cyrus’s despicable behavior to teach language worries me no more than when I used beer bottle tops as poker chips to teach my daughters to count. Some may question my use of alcohol and poker for my “teachable moment” but hey, what can I say – I’m a dude!