This past Friday night was the 25th time that the American Dialect Society (ADS) has voted for the Word of the Year. We were reminded at the beginning of the meeting that this makes it only the 24th anniversary, so no champagne yet. … It was, as usual, a lively gathering, with standing room only in the back and even, at one point, chanting in support of one word on the ballot. As we do every year, we voted on other categories too, such as Most Outrageous, Most Useful, Most Creative, etc. We added a new category this year: Most Notable Hashtag. And this is highly relevant for this year’s Word of the Year.
As I did last January, let me you give you the winners of all the categories and some highlights from our discussions; the full ballot and final vote counts are available in the press release on the ADS website.
Word of the Year for 2014: #BlackLivesMatter (‘hashtag used as protest over African Americans killed at the hands of police (esp. Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island)’). In 2012 the word hashtag was voted the Word of the Year, given its ubiquity in the Twittersphere and beyond, creating and/or reflecting social trends. This year’s winner, the powerful hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, was created in 2012 as a call to action after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. The hashtag and the social movement became even more prominent in 2014 in response to the tragic events in Ferguson and Staten Island. If you’re now wondering what counts as a “word” for the Word of the Year vote, that is a fair question. We typically say that it is a “lexical item” or a “vocabulary item,” so it could be a prefix like e- (WOTY 1998) or a phrase like blue state/red state (WOTY 2004); the key is that the item conveys a single meaning. And some hashtags, like #BlackLivesMatter, are proving to be very powerful, socially and politically important lexical items.
The linguistic work of hashtags is especially interesting, from the way they are written as one word, to the way that they allow writers/speakers to comment on their own social media comments, to the way that some have become expressions of social protest in the “real”—as opposed to/in addition to online—world. #BlackLivesMatter won in a landslide over bae (‘a sweetheart or romantic partner’), manspreading (‘of a man, to sit with one’s legs wide on public transit in a way that blocks other seats’), even (see Most Useful), and columbusing (see Most Creative).
Most Useful Word of the Year: even (v., ‘to deal with or reconcile difficult situations or emotions, from “I can’t even”’). There was some discussion about even’s limitations as a verb: some argued that it has to appear after can’t, and it has no inflected forms (e.g., evens, evened) with this meaning. One participant countered the first argument with the example “I have lost the ability to even.” A word/verb to watch! No run-off required in this category, as even blew away the other contenders: budtender (‘a person who specializes in serving marijuana to consumers, especially in legal dispensaries’), robocar (‘a self-driving car’), unbothered (‘not annoyed or distracted’), and Ebola. Perhaps it was this pre-vote reminder from one participant: “If you don’t know what to vote for, you can’t even.” Most Creative: columbusing (‘cultural appropriation, especially the act of a white person claiming to discover things already known to minority cultures’). This clever eponym (a word derived from a proper name) got a lot of buzz on the Internet in the second half of 2014. From what I can tell, the buzz began with this CollegeHumor video called “Columbusing: Discovering Things for White People,” posted on June 23. It was quickly featured on the Huffington Post and elsewhere. In July, NPR’s blog CodeSwitch published a post called “’Columbusing’: The Art of Discovering Something That Is Not New,” in which Brenda Salinas notes, “Sometimes … Columbusing can feel icky,” and raises the question: “When is cultural appropriation a healthy byproduct of globalization and when is it a problem?” Columbusing won out over manspreading (see above), misogynoir (‘misogyny directed toward black women’), and narcissistick (or narcisstick, ‘perjorative term for a selfie stick’)—and in case you’re feeling unsure of what a selfie stick is, it is the pole that you can attach a smartphone to in order to take selfies from a distance. Most Likely to Succeed: salty (‘exceptionally bitter, angry, or upset’). It was a close run-off between salty and basic (‘plain, socially awkward, unattractive, uninteresting, ignorant, pathetic, uncool, etc.’). Salty can be traced back to 1930s African-American slang; it got picked up recently by the Fighting Game Community (FGC), part of eSports. As one participant noted, we could say it has been columbused (just to show how useful that word is). The compound selfie stick showed up in this category but didn’t get a lot of love; nor did casual (n., ‘a new or inexperienced person, especially a gamer’) or plastiglomerate (‘type of stone made of melted plastic, beach sediment, and organic debris’). Least Likely to Succeed: plastisher (‘online media publisher that also serves as platform for creating content’). There seemed to be widespread agreement that this ridiculous word might be the ugliest word of 2014. So the vote may reflect our wishful thinking that this word will not succeed! Most Outrageous: to second-amendment (v., ‘to kill (someone) with a gun, used ironically by gun control supporters’). Columnist Dan Savage verbed this word, and it won by the total vote count of “everyone minus 17” to 17. Most Unnecessary: baeless (‘without a romantic partner’). Narcissistick got renominated in this category, and it was popular enough to earn a run-off with baeless, but baeless prevailed. I was a narcissistick supporter myself, perhaps because I like the word bae. Undergraduate students made sure I knew about bae this summer, and my favorite thing about it is its false etymology. In all likelihood, bae is a shortening of baby or babe, but many young speakers who use the word believe that it is an acronym for your “before anyone else.” How sweet an acronym is that? Most Euphemistic: EIT (‘abbreviation for the already euphemistic “enhanced interrogation technique”’). As Yale linguistics professor Larry Horn pointed out, how can you not vote for a second-order euphemism? But it had some competition from conscious uncoupling, Gwyneth Paltrow’s description of her separation from Chris Martin (by polite mutual agreement). Most Notable Hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter. With 226 votes, #BlackLivesMatter swept this category, although we all recognized that the other candidates were also very important hashtags in 2014: #ICantBreathe (‘final words of Eric Garner, turned into a rallying cry against police violence’), #WhyIStayed (‘explanation by women about staying in abusive relationships’), and #NotAllMen (‘response by men to discussions of sexual abuse, sexism, or misogyny that they see as portraying all men as perpetrators’—and it was noted on the ballot that this hashtag was countered by #YesAllWomen (‘used by women sharing stories of bias, harassment, or abuse’). On the ballot, the hashtag #NotAllMen was written #notallmen, and one very tall man stood up during the discussion period and noted that he was having trouble supporting a hashtag against tall men. I’m not sure I’ll be able to look at that hashtag the same way again.
I look forward to seeing what linguistic innovations the year 2015 holds in store. We’ll be sure to discuss and celebrate them at next year’s meeting in Washington, D.C. With champagne.