linguistics and lexicography Love English

#Blacklivesmatter and words of the year

WordleThe 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’.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • This is really interesting, Stan. Traditionally, Words of the Year are either already in dictionaries (e.g. “austerity”, Merriam-Webster’s WOTY, 2010), or they become new dictionary entries (e.g. Oxford’s WOTY “selfie” in 2013, or “credit crunch” in 2008). Now, these hashtags, as you say, “point to conversations taking place”, but (unlike other WOTYs) I can’t see any of them becoming entries in dictionaries. So there’s a new divergence between what’s interesting from a sociolinguistic point of view and what is relevant to people who compile dictionaries. Whether we need to update our inclusion principles is an unresolved question.

  • Nice post. What I’ve found interesting about ‘hashtag’ over the past year or so (and perhaps this *is* relevant for lexicographers) is its use in speech, eg: ‘I wish things were different- hashtag frustrated’. Suddenly the word has become a marker of something like conversational implicature.

    It’s another example, akin to the likes of ‘oh em gee’ in speech etc, where we’re appropriating social media speak because, bizarrely, it proves a handy characterization of a discourse concept which we’ve previously not bothered with or had the tools to identify. .

  • It’s definitely relevant to dictionaries, Kerry. In the case of hashtag Macmillan has that conversational use covered (here). It’s a bit like the way computational terms (such as “default setting“) have acquired new meanings outside the IT area.

  • Yep thanks, I’ve just noticed that – Macmillan are well ahead of the game here 🙂 – none of the other main publishers have covered this usage yet.

  • Michael: I found it an interesting choice too, and for multiple reasons. I don’t see particular hashtags as something dictionaries need to cover, but I would like to see a good online hashtag directory, with clear explanations of popular hashtags.

    Kerry: Yes, I know a couple of people who say hashtag [X] regularly in conversation, and though I’ve used it once or twice, I won’t be making a habit of it! The NYT looked at this extension of the word a few years ago.

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