The final, and foremost, Word of the Year selection in language lovers’ winter calendar is the American Dialect Society’s, which took place in Portland earlier this month. With no clear front-runner for its overall WOTY, it was open to surprises – like last year’s winner because. And a surprise duly occurred: the word of 2014 is not a word as such, but a hashtag: #blacklivesmatter.
This is less strange than it might seem. Though the title is word of the year, this is intended broadly; any ‘vocabulary items’, including phrases and affixes, are in the running so long as their use has proved sufficiently prominent and notable during the year. Another factor is that the Society added a new category of Most Notable Hashtag this year, so there was always the possibility (if not the expectation) that one of those would win the overall WOTY too.
#Blacklivesmatter didn’t just win: it won by an enormous margin (196 of 220 votes) over the other contenders columbusing, even, manspreading, and bae. Columbusing, which won Most Creative, refers to ‘cultural appropriation, especially the act of a white person claiming to discover things already known to minority cultures’; it’s a nice new example of an eponym, albeit currently less well known outside the US. Bae is defined in Macmillan’s Open Dictionary as ‘a term of endearment used to refer to your boyfriend, girlfriend, etc.’ Though still very popular, its use has been declining for the last few months. The suffixed form baeless ignominiously topped the poll for Most Unnecessary.
Considered as a group, the five category-winning terms testify to the creativity and imagination inherent in language use, each in a different way. #Blacklivesmatter is not lexically innovative, but its selection as word of the year underscores the irresistible rise of hashtags and how they continue to spread into mainstream culture and domains beyond their early use as a way of organising discussions on social media.
It also indicates the broader significance of the hashtags shortlisted: #icantbreathe, #notallmen, #yesallwomen, #whyistayed and #blacklivesmatter all point to conversations taking place, on a global scale and in real time, about violence or abuse between different groups of people. Hashtags have facilitated such communication, providing a forum for voices to be heard and opening people’s eyes to others’ experiences. The rallying cry #blacklivesmatter is a worthy victor, described on Al Jazeera as ‘reflecting our challenges back to us’.Email this Post