The Cartography of the Derivation: A Brief History of the Louis and Clärque Expedition—Carlos L. P. Rizziani SpecGram Vol CLXVIII, No 3 Contents “In Chaucer’s time . . .”—The Liberating Joy of Do-It-Yourself Etymologies—Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

On the Proto-Indo-European Origin of ‘Twerk’

Mark Butcher & Mark Candlestick-Maker
Department of PIE Studies, Pecan University

A common question asked of linguists these days, to our collective dismay, is “What is the etymology of ‘twerk’?”1 Twerking is a dance craze with respectable origins in the New Orleans bounce music scene,2 but it has enraged millions in recent years for reasons we would rather avoid writing about.

Several authors have speculated that the term is a clipping of ‘footwork’ or a portmanteau of ‘twist’ and ‘jerk’3 (foolish speculation, we know). We will make the case that the word is of Proto-Indo-European stock.

Consider the PIE etymon *terkw-. Its reflexes include the semantics of turning or circles: Gk. τρέπω ‘turn’, Lat. torqueō ‘twist, spin’, Skt. tarku ‘spindle’, and OCS trakŭ ‘band, girdle’. In addition, we see a connection with torture: Lat. torqueō ‘torture’, tortura ‘torture’ (cf. Eng. ‘torture’ (duh)). Lastly, as usual, Hittite provides a crucial piece of evidence: Hitt. tarku- ‘dance’. Hence, we reconstruct the PIE *terkw- ‘twist, dance, torture’.4

“But ‘twerk’ could not have derived from that form! What about Grimm’s Law? Or any other Germanic sound change for that matter?” you may ask. Indeed, scholars purport that the labialization spread to the first consonant, resulting in *twerk-, which then went through all those pesky sound changes, resulting in the Modern English ‘queer’.5

We propose that the labialization did spread to the first consonant in Very-Late-Proto-Indo-European, at which point *twerk- ‘twist, dance, torture’ (o-grade *twork-, zero-grade *twṛk-)6 was borrowed directly into the Modern English lexicon as, well, twerk ‘twist, dance, torture’ late in the second millennium CE. Around 1980.

Opponents of this theory will probably claim that Modern English speakers could not ever have spoken to the Proto-Indo-Europeans, let alone been in enough contact for borrowing to occur. We at Pecan University PIE Department beg to differ. The Proto-Indo-Europeans are doing just fine, thank you very much. Though you may not want to talk to them, as they’re really busy twerking it all the time. Which they’ve apparently been doing for thousands of years.


Chomsky, Noam. 1951. “Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew.” Master’s thesis, University of Pennsylvania.

Chomsky, Noam. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Friend, John B. 1978. Cattle of the World. Blandford Press: Dorset.

Just type “twerk” into the bar thing. That’s what we did.

Pulju, Timothy J. 2010. “How to Do Fieldwork on Proto-Indo-European.” SpecGram CLVIII.4.

1 Usually written as “oh hai, I can has etym0l0gy of twerk plz? kthxbye”, or other variants.

2 We’re just going to go ahead and cite Wikipedia on this one.

3 Wikipedia again. Sorry.

4 Ibid. We know, we know.


6 Which we hope to God are not also borrowed. Seriously.

The Cartography of the Derivation: A Brief History of the Louis and Clärque ExpeditionCarlos L. P. Rizziani
“In Chaucer’s time . . .”The Liberating Joy of Do-It-Yourself EtymologiesJonathan Caws-Elwitt
SpecGram Vol CLXVIII, No 3 Contents