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Dennis Baron's Word of the Year for 2012: #hashtag

Last week, lexicographer and Word Routes columnist Ben Zimmer presented his nominees for Word of the Year. Now here is the Word of the Year selection of Dennis Baron, English professor at the University of Illinois and author of the blog The Web of Language.

#hashtag is the 2012 Web of Language Word of the Year. That's #hashtag, complete with the #, or 'hash,' also called the 'number sign' or 'pound sign' — used in computerese to signal a comment, instruction, or bit of metadata, but made popular on Twitter to identify keywords or concepts.

Everything on Twitter's got a #hashtag, even the #wordoftheyear. There's also #twitterrevolution, the #hashtag that reduces economic protests and political uprisings — everything from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring — into clickable social media trends. #Hashtag is popular offline as well, if a 2012 baby named Hashtag is anything to go by. Baby Hashtag isn't that surprising, since 2012 also saw a good number of computer-savvy parents calling their babies Mac, up 12% over 2011, Apple, up 15%, and Siri, up 5%. Say "mama," Siri.

Maybe #hashtag should also get the Sapir-Whorf Linguistic Determinism Award, because it's getting to the point where we can't talk about anything that doesn't have a #hashtag, including #hashtag itself. And just as people are starting to work written acronyms like LOL, OMG, and WTF into their conversations (WTF was the Web of Language 2010 Word of the Year), it may not be long before we start hearing, "Hey, I saw hashtagSkyfall five times this week." So don't be surprised if #hashtag gets the Text-to-Speech award for 2013.  

Other observers of the lexicon have named their own Word of the Year. The Oxford Dictionaries American Word of the Year is gif, used as a verb, as in, "If you kids don't quiet down I'm going to get seriously giffed." Oxford's British Word of the Year is the equally improbable omnishambles, as in "The economy of Greece is a shambles, but what happened at the BBC is an omnishambles." (Oxford picks separate British and American words of the year because they are two great nations separated by a common language.) 

Dictionary.com's Word of the Year is bluster, which refers both to a strong wind and to a windy speech, a suitable prizewinner in a year that saw hurricane Sandy directly followed by the presidential election. Merriam-Webster selected a pair of words based on lookups to the online dictionary: socialism and capitalism. The American Dialect Society will name their Word of the Year in early January.

So, this year the Web of Language is giving an awards in a number of other lexical categories. The honor for Discourse Marker of the Year goes to sentence-initial so, which is appearing more and more at the start of answers like "You asked about the 2012 Discourse Marker Word of the Year? So after surveying all the data the judges decided to pick so.

It also signals that the speaker is going to narrate something. So here are the other significant Web of Language Words of the Year: 

The Carpe Diem WOTY — that's an acronym of Word of the Year — is YOLO, which stands for "you only live once." Use it at your own risk.

And the Libertarian Acronym of the Year is YOYO, meaning "you're on your own," a message that didn't convince voters on Nov. 6.

The Millennium Bug Word of the Year is fiscal cliff, a deadline causing fear and panic as it nears, but which may prove to be no big deal after all, like all those predictions about the end of the world.

Speaking of the end of the world, the BBC's popular World News broadcast always ends with this warning, "And that's the end of the world news." This year Web of Language gives its End of the World News award to two words, Nibiru, the planet that, according to some obscure Mayan prediction of catastrophe, will hit the earth on the winter solstice, Dec. 21, 2012, and to NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, for its explanation of why this is not going to happen. 

We don't want to leave out the beginning of the world, so this year we're honoring the Creationist Word of the Year, God particle, the faith-based name for the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle discovered in 2012 in experiments at the large hadron collider at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research. 

Speaking of things like end-of-the-world predictions that won't go away even though we'd like them to, the Not Dead Yet Word of the Year is IED, 'improvised explosive device,' now with over 25 million hits on Google. A synonym, roadside bomb, which won the Word of the Year award in 2006, has only 3.4 million Google hits; there seem to be fewer roadside bombs mentioned in 2012 because there aren't that many roadsides left to bomb in Iraq and Afghanistan.

2012 saw a presidential election, so the 2012 Electoral College Number of the Year is 47%, the number of voters Mitt Romney said he didn't have to worry about that also turned out to be the number of voters who voted for him. The Electoral College Word of the Year is Nate Silver.

The Eponymous Word of the Year this election year is Obamacare, the popular name of the Affordable Health Care Act upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2012. Opponents of Obamacare tried to portray the word as negative and threatened to move to Australia if it wasn't repealed or ruled unconstitutional, until they learned that Australia has a universal health care system even better than Obamacare and its Prime Minister is an atheist.

The runner-up for the eponymous Word of the Year merits its own name: the David Petraeus Word of the Year is email privacy. Shortly after the FBI announced it had been reading the email of the director of the CIA, senators anxious to protect their own email rushed to introduce the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which would require the government to get a warrant before reading the senators' personal email, and ours as well.

To celebrate Queen Elizabeth's long reign, the Jubilee Word of the Year goes to her patient heir apparent, Prince Charles, for announcing that Americans invent all sorts of "words that shouldn't be."

And finally, the Centennial Word of the Year award is shared by New Mexico, celebrating 100 years of statehood with websites in English and in Spanish and a t-shirt honoring the state's native Zia population, and Arizona, celebrating its 100th year in the Union only in English and with a limited edition firearm, imported from South Dakota.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.