Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Tag, You're It! "Hashtag" Wins as 2012 Word of the Year

The American Dialect Society has selected its Word of the Year for 2012, and the winner was a bit of a surprise. It wasn't fiscal cliff, the ubiquitous term in the news from Capitol Hill. And it wasn't YOLO, the youthful acronym for "You Only Live Once" that quickly rose (and just as quickly fell) this past year. No, the ultimate champion was that mainstay of the Twittersphere, hashtag.

A hashtag is a convention used on Twitter to organize conversations, mark topics, or make witty commentary, created by appending a word or phrase with the hash symbol (#) preceding it. If you need a primer, check out my Word Routes column about how hashtags have evolved into vehicles of satire and self-mockery, and Dennis Baron's column in which he presciently selected hashtag (or rather #hashtag) as his own Word of the Year.

As Chair of the New Words Committee for the American Dialect Society, I've been actively involved in the WOTY selection process for the last several years. Interestingly enough, in three of the last four years the winning word has come from the tech world: we picked tweet for 2009 and app for 2010. (The winner for 2011 was occupy.) And as was the case with tweet and app, hashtag ultimately was the Society's choice despite not being on the initial list of nominations, receiving a groundswell of support at the end.

The ADS met this year at the Boston Marriott Copley Place, in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America. Many LSA members and other interested onlookers joined us, filling up a hotel ballroom with more than 200 seats. As usual, it was a spirited affair, full of impassioned lobbying for and against different nominees.

ADS executive secretary Allan Metcalf kicked off the proceedings, moving swiftly to the first category: Most Useful. YOLO seemed like a strong choice, considering the many uses that it has inspired, as an excuse for bad behavior or as a sarcastic, self-referential commentary on the whole YOLO phenomenon. But after a runoff, YOLO lost out to -(ma)geddon and -(po)calypse, which were paired together for their uses as combining forms (derived from armageddon and apocalypse) to describe various calamities in hyperbolic terms.

In the Most Creative category, mansplaining (what happens when a man condescendingly explains something to female listeners) was the subject of much debate. Though the word was generally favored, some felt that it wasn't quite "creative" enough, since it simply grafts the man- prefix in the same way as such words as mancation and manscaping. Ultimately, mansplaining was defeated in a runoff against gate lice, an evocative term for passengers who crowd around an airport gate when a plane begins boarding.

Words (and phrases) can be nominated in multiple categories, and such was the case for legitmate rape, the notorious expression used by Todd Akin in his bid for a Senate seat in Missouri. Legitimate rape was nominated in both the Most Unnecessary and Most Outrageous categories, and it handily won both contests. Another clear favorite came in the Most Euphemistic category: self-deportation, the policy (favored by candidate Mitt Romney) of encouraging illegal immigrants to return voluntarily to their home countries.

Next came one of the more glamorous categories: Most Likely to Succeed. There were many worthy contenders, including fiscal cliff, superstorm, and big data. But the big winner was marriage equality, which has come to be the accepted term for discussing the growing legal recognition of same-sex marriage in the United States. In the Least Likely to Succeed category, YOLO was again nominated and ended up as a co-winner (or co-loser) with phablet (a device that's not quite a phone and not quite a tablet), as they were separated by a mere one vote in the runoff.

As we've had in past election years, we added a special category of election-related words, including such choices as 47 percent, Etch-a-Sketch, Eastwooding, and malarkey. But a nomination from the floor secured a win for binders (full of women), the term used by Romney in the second presidential debate to describe the resumes of female job candidates that he consulted as governor of Massachusetts.

Finally it was time to make nominations for the overall Word of the Year. The slate filled with some expected choices, such as YOLO, fiscal cliff, 47 percent, and Gangnam style. But it came down to a runoff between the Most Likely to Succeed winner, marriage equality, and a new nominee: hashtag. Though hashtag has been around for a few years now (first used on Twitter in 2007), it's fair to say that 2012 was the Year of the Hashtag. Hashtagging became so popular that the practice spread to other social media, and hashtag could sometimes be heard in oral use introducing a snappy metacommentary on what had just been said. And as Dennis Baron pointed out, this was also the year that a baby was named Hashtag.

With WOTY 2012 behind us, we can start looking forward to what might be selected for 2013. I'll make an early prediction: while 2012 brought us superstorm (as in Superstorm Sandy), 2013 is going to introduce us all to another super natural phenomenon: supercomet!

Finally, here's a video of the end of the WOTY session, from my perspective as a vote-counter.

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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 5th 2013, 1:53 AM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
It was at an annual family Christmas party a few weeks ago where hashtag was demonstrated to me by a very apt user of an IPhone. It was two years ago almost to the day when I started my Twitter account thinking whatever its about, maybe one day I will use it. Then out of the blue over this holiday season it began to take on some serious shape. This probably because I bought a ITouch last June and then all the App fascination that followed. The hashtag seems really ominousness as it was shown to me how to search with it. I was thinking this is so much information. And then as I was finally tinkering/learning my profile settings this early morning, you tweeted about the WOTY. Love this site and all the others surrounding it like Vocabulary.com and more. Thanks, Ben! I'll have to read your earlier posts about hashtag.
Saturday January 5th 2013, 11:46 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
The Most Euphemistic winner, “self-deportation,” has an interesting history. It appears to have been coined in 1994 by two Mexican-American satirists, Lalo Alcaraz and Esteban Zul, in response to a California ballot measure, Proposition 187, to bar illegal immigrants from using state-run hospitals and schools. Alcaraz invented a character, Daniel D. Portado, who claimed to be a “militant self-deportationist.” According to a New York Times blog post published earlier this year, the Spanish-language TV channel Telemundo, unaware that “Portado” was fictional, invited him onto a TV show before the election.
Sunday January 6th 2013, 12:18 PM
Comment by: Steve C.
This has got to classify as the most ridiculous decision of an officiating body. Why not select from any number of other product related terms out there? Is this what our society is coming to, where our most predominant terms are born of products and services popularized only by intense and deeply strategic marketing? Why not terms arising from anything more socially relevant to do with ongoing economic struggle, unemployment, or on the plus side an increase in the real estate market activity? Nothing about super storm "Sandy" or perhaps the numerous mass shootings that have pounded the consciousness of our nation?

It certainly cannot be because "hashtag" is a new word. It's been around since even before it was popularized with the advent of touch-tone phones.

Have we really been reduced to this level of pettiness as a society?
Sunday January 6th 2013, 1:59 PM
Comment by: Joann Z. (Rockford, IL)
My favorite election term was "fair share", Obama's term for the tax proceeds from the 1% of taxpayers who already pay 23% of the total income tax burden, according to the CBO.
Saturday January 12th 2013, 10:34 PM
Comment by: Pradeep T.
The surprise. If you search for this word on vocabulary.com, the site answers for the word 'hash'
Friday January 18th 2013, 4:26 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
@Steve, some thoughts. First, anyone can nominate any term. Feel free. Second, the voting is entirely based on the subjective impressions of the people who show up to vote. Third, the whole idea behind any Thing Of The Year is precisely the possibly ephemeral impression that that Thing has had in the previous 12 months. Fourth, so what? Nothing rides on this process; it's not like the selected term somehow is validated more than any other term. It's just for fun.

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