Lexicon Valley

An Oxford English Dictionary for the Millennial Set, Fo’ Shizzle

Twerk, twisting and jerking since 1820.

Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for MTV

Note: All dates in parentheses are for the earliest OED citation. Bold type indicates entries that are new or newly defined in the dictionary as of June 2015.

The much vaunted, ever-expanding Oxford English Dictionary announced its latest update last month with, for salivating word lovers like us, a press release that read like a late-night infomercial for a lexicographic breakthrough. Five hundred new words! More than 900 revised and updated entries!! But wait, there’s more!!! If you act now, we’ll throw in 2,400 new “senses” of existing words at no extra cost.


In what is perhaps the most startling bit of etymological news, twerk predates the culturally appropriating caboose of Miley Cyrus by nearly two centuries. Starting in the 1990s, twerk has been used to describe a style of rump-shaking dance that grew out of New Orleans bounce shows, which, for the uninitiated, are sexualized amalgams of hip-hop, Mardi Gras, and drag. But as far back as 1820, when it was spelled twirk, the word referred simply to a “twisting or jerking movement; a twitch.” By the mid-1800s it became a verb—“In vain he twirks his near han’ spur”—and a half-century later swapped out the i for an e. Though we’ll likely never know who coined the term, OED editors conjecture that it may have formed as a portmanteau of twist and jerk.


Anyway, twerking is sooo 2013. What’s a gal to do to be edgy in our modern age? Try placing the word guerrilla in front of your otherwise ordinary avocation. Instant edge! Spanish for “little war,” guerrilla first ambushed its way into our vocabulary to describe either an “irregular war” or “one engaged in such warfare.” It later evolved to modify more mundane pursuits that are nevertheless “conducted in an irregular, unorthodox, and spontaneous way, without regard to established conventions, rules, and formalities.” Its first such use was in the phrase guerrilla advertising (1888), and the OED charts its rise in recent decades with a band of new entries, including guerrilla theatre (1966), guerrilla art (1970), guerrilla gardening (1973), and guerrilla knitting (2004). Yeah, the sewing circle just got real.


A long overdue sensitivity to gender-bending and gender-blending has opened up room in our lexicon for words that renegotiate traditional assumptions about biological sex and socially defined labels like masculine and feminine. For more than 40 years, transgender has been used to describe people whose self-identity does not neatly align with their congenitally conferred sex and gender. Although transgender is mostly neutral and nonjudgmental—and has been embraced by the LGBTQ community—there is a default normalization of non-trans identities, and so cisgender (1999) emerged as a kind of corrective.


Borrowing from Latinate geographical terminology like transalpine/cisalpine, the prefix trans- in this context means “on the other side of” and cis- “on this side of.” Cisgender then designates, as the OED now puts it, “someone whose sense of personal identity corresponds to the sex and gender assigned to him or her at birth.” Cis-, you might say, helps ground the once revolutionary notion that gender is a spectrum that exists apart from our anatomy.


Finally, offered without sarcasm or snark, here are some other new entries that the OED has touted. We added the earliest known citations for each:


freegan (noun): A person who eats discarded food, typically collected from the refuse of shops or restaurants, for ethical or ecological reasons. It can also be used as an adjective (1995).

I met a bald bloke who explained that there are camps for carnivores, camps for vegans and camps for ‘freegans’ who simply eat anything they are given.
The Sunday Times

hot mess (noun): A hot mess referred to “a warm meal, especially one served to a group” in 1818, but now it is more commonly used as a slang term for something or someone in extreme confusion or disorder.


Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.
Monthly Journal of the International Association of Machinists

fo’ shizzle (phrase): This slang term originated in the language of rap and hip-hop and means “for sure.”

Nas also refers to Jay-Z’s new album, ‘The Blueprint’, saying, “Nas designed your blueprint/who you kiddin?”“Fo’ shizzle [for sure] you phony/the rapper version of Sisqo”
(quoting lyrics to the not-yet-released album Stillmatic) (2001)

twitterati (noun): Users of the social networking service Twitter collectively, typically referring to the group of prolific contributors or those who have high numbers of followers.

wonders if any one at Twitter is analysing the degrees of separation of the Twitterati
Tweet from @wasabicube (2006)


SCOTUS (noun): (The) Supreme Court of the United States.

Scotus—Supreme Court of the United States.
W. P. Phillips Telegraphic Code (1879)

FLOTUS (noun): (The) First Lady of the United States.

To their Secret Service shadows they may be ‘POTUS’ and ‘FLOTUS’, but to each other out on their 688-acre California ranch he’s still her ‘Ronnie’ and she’s still his ‘Nancy’.
The Washington Post

By the way, the phrase don’t (even) go there!—”(as a warning, sometimes aggressively) don’t talk about that, stay off that topic”—was also added last month. First known citation? Oprah Winfrey, of course.