Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

In a First, the Word of the Year is a Hashtag: "#blacklivesmatter"

The American Dialect Society made its 25th annual selection for Word of the Year, and for the first time the winner was actually a Twitter hashtag: #blacklivesmatter. Even though the socially conscious slogan is formed by combining three words, as a hashtag it was converted into something linguistically innovative, attracting the attention of the assorted language scholars who gathered for the vote at the society's annual meeting in Portland, Oregon.

WOTY-watchers may recall that just two years ago, the word hashtag was the overall winner selected by the ADS. The power of the hashtag has continued to grow since then, and this year at the nominating session a new category was created to go along with the society's traditional ones: Most Notable Hashtag. After #blacklivesmatter won in the new category, it swept to victory as the overall winner as well.

I presided over the vote in my capacity as the society's Chair of the New Words Committee. As usual, the ADS meeting was held in conjuction with the much larger Linguistic Society of America, and altogether nearly 300 people showed up for a spirited voting session, with many passionate arguments for and against the various choices.

We selected winners in various secondary categories before crowning the overall winner, and the proceedings started with the Most Useful category. One choice was budtender, for one who dispenses cannabis in states that have legalized marijuana. But budtender lost out to an unusual spin on an old word: even. From the expression "I can't even," which omits a verb (such as "deal" or "handle"), even itself gets treated like a verb, as in "I've lost the ability to even." An article in The Toast explains how this usage has caught on online.

Next came the Most Creative category. While there were several entertaining choices (such as manspreading, the habit of some men to spread their legs on public transit), there was again one clear winner in the category: columbusing. As popularized by a College Humor video, columbusing is a very handy term to describe acts of cultural reappropriation where a white person "discovers" something already known to minority cultures, much as Columbus "discovered" America despite people already living there.

In the Most Unnecessary category, a runoff was needed after no nominee garnered a clear majority. One of the top choices was narcisstick (or narcissistick), a pejorative term for the extendable pole used for taking selfies, more commonly known as a selfie stick. Another choice was baeless, meaning "single, without a romantic partner" or literally lacking a bae. (Read Neal Whitman's column on bae if it's unfamiliar to you.) Baeless beat out narcisstick in the runoff.

The Most Outrageous category had a winner that was outrageous indeed: second amendment used as a verb, meaning "to kill someone with a gun." It was taken up by supporters of gun control this year, especially on Twitter, after the columnist Dan Savage began using it as a critique of American gun culture.

We then moved on to the Most Euphemistic category. Our own euphemism-wrangler Mark Peters had suggested conscious uncoupling, used by Gwyneth Paltrow when announcing her divorce from Chris Martin. Conscious uncouping did well in the voting, forcing a runoff with EIT, the abbreviation for enhanced interrogation technique. (EIT was also on Mark's list; he said it was "like the linguistic equivalent of the KFC Double Down: a euphemism of a euphemism.") Ultimately, EIT came out the winner.

The Most Likely Succeed category was dominated by two popular slang terms: basic (variously defined as "plain, socially awkward, unattractive, uninteresting") and salty, meaning "exceptionally bitter, angry, or upset." After some animated discussion in which some participants could very well be described as salty, salty defeated basic in another runoff.

No runoff was needed in the Least Likely to Succeed category. There the winner was platisher, a blend of platform and publisher coined to describe online outlets like Medium that serve a dual purpose. As I wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, there has been plenty of backlash against this term since it was coined by Jonathan Glick for an article in Recode.

Finally it was time for the brand-new category for this year, Most Notable Hashtag. A few choices (#notallmen, #yesallwomen, #whyistayed) were gender-related, developing out of discussions about sexism, misogyny, and domestic abuse. Two others focused on racial injustice after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. One of them, #icantbreathe, was formed from Garner's dying words; as I discussed in a piece for Wired, those words ended up being powerfully transmuted into a slogan of solidarity. But #blacklivesmatter was the clear favorite, and its overwhelming success in the hashtag category carried over to an easy victory as overall Word of the Year as well.

Update: Here is a news report on the vote from Al Jazeera America.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.