Word Routes

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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.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday January 10th 2015, 12:52 PM
Comment by: Joann Z. (Rockford, IL)
I live and work far from the cocoon of the journo/higher ed elite. These words resonate only within your tribe. I'm now inspired to listen better to the words of the great unwashed of my tribe. Be back next year.
Saturday January 10th 2015, 6:16 PM
Comment by: Darnell W. (TX)
i really dont get what that above comment meant and i really feel like i should take it offensively please reword it as it makes it sound like your saying something offensive
Sunday January 11th 2015, 2:15 PM
Comment by: Connie Hale (CA)
Happy that the Word of the Year is distinct from Most Likely to Succeed, as a #blacklivesmatter seems fleeting as a, ahem, word. Agree wholeheartedly on Least Likely to Succeed. "Platisher" seems like a flash in the pan. Or would that be a "flashan"?
Sunday January 11th 2015, 8:15 PM
Comment by: STMahlberg (Las Vegas, NV)
Once again more examples of language becoming irrelevant and meaningless.

Very sad.
Sunday January 11th 2015, 10:08 PM
Comment by: Mike P.
The link to The Toast appears broken -- ?
Sunday January 11th 2015, 10:10 PM
Comment by: Mike P.
> becoming irrelevant and meaningless

STMahlberg, I'm curious how these terms illustrate language becoming meaningless. (I think of the issue of relevance as a separate question, tho I'm curious about that.)
Sunday January 11th 2015, 10:14 PM
Comment by: Radko C. (NJ)Top 10 Word ListerTop 10 Commenter
Is it not just so stimulating to learn of this crud that is happily polluting the English language at the same time when mutilations and abuses of the basic language are summarily accepted and condoned, and are increasingly heard out of the mouths or rolling off the pens of individuals who address the public in one fashion or another and who must be presumed to have received SOME education in their background (considering that they possess degrees from institutions of higher learning). Or is it that it has become in vogue, exemplifying the spirit of nonconformism and defiance, to talk like this:
"I should have went...", "between he and I", "he acted quick".
Shame and pity.
Monday January 12th 2015, 11:19 AM
Comment by: STMahlberg (Las Vegas, NV)
Mike P.

"> becoming irrelevant and meaningless

STMahlberg, I'm curious how these terms illustrate language becoming meaningless. (I think of the issue of relevance as a separate question, tho I'm curious about that.)"

If you have to ask that question, then I would venture to say you don't do much reading.
Monday January 12th 2015, 1:00 PM
Comment by: Mike P.
>"I would venture to say you don't do much reading."

I read quite a lot, actually. But I still don't see how the nominated terms lead to language becoming irrelevant and meaningless. Could you elaborate -- ?
Monday January 12th 2015, 2:47 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
MikeP, I'm not sure about the cryptic STMahlberg, "of language becoming irrelevant. It sure seemed like the American Dialect Society is working hard to be irrelevant.

I thought this year's list of winners was weak. I don't see any of the words having much impact on language beyond this vote.

I've run into a few of the losers but none of winners in the world at large. Perhaps apropo, as I don't live in a hip area with a fast moving scene.

Making #blacklivesmatter as the winner smacks of a way to get ADC into the media rather than a relevant use of their intellect and experience.
Monday January 12th 2015, 3:54 PM
Comment by: Mike P.
I see. Yeah, the question of impact is always a bit of a guessing game. Words that seem prominent today can fade as quickly as pop songs, whereas words that succeed tend to fade into our everyday lives, and we often don't remember when they burst onto the scene.

Ben is probably the person who should address this, but the question seems partly to be about what the purpose is of electing words of the year at all. One thing that seems clear is that it's very hard to separate the term itself from the concept it stands for--or to put it a different way, when people vote for (or against) a term, are they voting based on some sort of purely linguistic criterion, or are they voting on the concept that the term represents? A couple of years ago, the term of the year was "occupy." From a purely linguistic POV, that was clearly a term of note--it was a new spin on an existing term, it was widely in the news, and it proved to be productive, as people used it to invent new things to "occupy." (My personal favorite was a t-shirt that a colleague of mine used to wear that said "Occupy Mars." :-) ) Still, it's a politically charged term, and it's about a _concept_ that many people don't like. If ADS elects such a term as WotY, are they endorsing "occupy-ization" at large (so to speak), or are they merely recording a linguistic phenomenon? It sounds like part of the discussion here might be the idea that it's the former. (A remarkable thing is how much linguists can now take of Twitter to track usage almost in real time.)

There's been a lot of discussion in the last couple of days about the election of "#blacklivesmatter" this year. Unlike "occupy" (I think?), it's possible that the politics of this term are so polarizing that there are people who've literally never heard (well, seen) that hashtag. To them, of course, its selection as WotY would be baffling. And I would hardly disagree that there are those for whom it can _only_ be considered an inflammatory tag, and thus not so much baffling as politically motivated.

The selection process for WotY is open--anyone can participate--but of course is going to be largely confined to the gang of linguistically interested parties who happen to be at the LSA conference. Certainly this is not a broad cross-section of society, for example. Then again, selections for the Academy Awards and for the Pro Bowl are altogether closed.

In the end, I think it's still an interesting point of discussion as to what it means even to select a WotY. Nothing rides on the result, and I think that it's done in the spirit of fun (the meetings are raucous) and to provide an entertaining public boost to the work of what Samuel Johnson once termed the "harmless drudge," i.e. lexicographers and their brethren.

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