#BlackLivesMatter: 2014’s WOTY & Why Language Matters, Too

Black Lives Matter Black Friday by The All-Nite Images, Flickr

Black Lives Matter Black Friday by The All-Nite Images, Flickr

Every year the American Dialect Society votes on the Word of the Year, choosing either a new word or a word they deem to have emerged as important. 2014’s choice was a rather unusual selection: #BlackLivesMatter.

Naturally, this has stirred up some controversy, and a lot of arguments among grammar nerds, linguists and common folk alike about whether this Twitter hashtag can actually be considered a word, especially considering that it is comprised of three words which form an independent clause.

History of WOTY

To understand the choice, it’s worth taking a look at the tradition of Word of the Year, an award that is not just given by the American Dialect Society, although they were the first to do so. The history of the Word of the Year (WOTY) began in 1990, when Allan Metcalf was organising the society’s annual get together and decided to capitalise on the group’s language expertise (a group made up of scholars, grammarians and language lovers) to pick the most influential word of the year.

The first WOTY was bushlips, a portmanteau of bush and lips in reference to George Bush Snr’s broken promise: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Since then, WOTY winners have included Not! (1992), Y2K (1999), metrosexual (2003), bailout (2008), tweet (2009), app (2010) and hashtag (2012).

From this list, it is clear that the words chosen are not necessarily new words, but are often existing words rendered new by a changed usage, or a particular significance to that year.

Of course, the American Dialect Society isn’t the only one joining in the fun. Oxford Dictionary’s WOTY for 2014 was a completely new word: vape (smoking e-cigarettes, with vaporised nicotine). By comparison, their WOTY for 2013 was selfie. Meanwhile Dictionary.com chose exposure (2013’s winner was privacy) and Merriam-Webster chose culture. Merriam-Webster’s choice comes more from a statistical standpoint on which words have see spikes in online searches, with ‘culture’ getting into pole position due to its more nuanced usage in phrases such as ‘company culture’ and ‘rape culture’. Last year, science was in number one, thanks largely to debates around climate change.

There is thus differing criteria used by each organisation. The American Dialect Society’s remains, arguably, the most interesting, as they push boundaries to explore the influence of society on words and vice versa (not that they’re failproof – 2006 saw them choose plutoed, to mean being demoted in the same manner as the planet. Not exactly a word that has stuck around!).

So why does #BlackLivesMatter matter?

While most WOTY choices are certainly up for debate, it was the American Dialect Society’s WOTY that got most tongues wagging this year, as #BlackLivesMatter beat out bae (romantic partner), even (used as ‘deal with’, as in “I can’t even) and manspreading (an amusing term referring to men sitting with their legs spread on public transport).

Anyone who spends any time on the internet will be familiar with late 2014’s viral twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. The hashtag emerged out of the Ferguson incident and its subsequent protests, as the US started grappling with the issue of systemic racism. The power of the hashtag can be seen in its spillage into the real world. Not only is it still being used on Twitter, but its usage extends beyond the internet, on protest signs and as a symbol for a political movement. It signifies something more than a hashtag or Twitter phenomenon.

But does it qualify?

While we can all agree that the hashtag carried significant influence in 2014 (and beyond), can we agree that it is a word, and thus qualifies for WOTY?

The Economist looked at how the hashtag is used on social media, to determine whether it’s used more commonly as an independent clause, as if the words were separated (black lives matter), or whether it does indeed function as a word in and of itself. While it is often used as a clause, there is ample evidence to suggest that it is commonly used as a noun as well. There’s also the argument that the hashtagification (another good contender for WOTY, possibly?) of words transform them into a single idea, beyond the individual words.

If we go to the dictionary, a ‘word’ is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a sound or combination of sounds that has a meaning and is spoken or written.” One could certainly argue that this hashtag fits this broad definition.

However, #BlackLivesMatter does not look like a word in a form we’re familiar with, clouding the already murky pool of debate surrounding it. But its configuration as a hashtag is unquestionably a new form of language that is quickly becoming an established part of our lexicon.

In the words of Ben Zimmer, head of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, “While #blacklivesmatter may not fit the traditional definition of a word, it demonstrates how powerfully a hashtag can convey a succinct social message. Language scholars are paying attention to the innovative linguistic force of hashtags, and #blacklivesmatter was certainly a forceful example of this in 2014.”

What 2014’s WOTY tells us about language

Grammar nazis and language purists might complain about this legitimation of twitter-speak, much in the same way the inclusion of texting language like LOL to the dictionary was received. There’s certainly been a rant or two about words like YOLO degrading the English language.

But to argue against the adaptability of language is to deny its history, and of course the very magic of language that lies in our ability to manipulate and stretch it, twisting old concepts into new ones, as well as creating whole new words and meanings.

If you’re not convinced, Anne Curzan’s TED talk on what makes a word real will definitely give you food for thought on why we should embrace these weird and wonderful new words as a sign that language is continuing with its progression, rather than moving backwards in any way.

After all, open Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or read one of Shakespeare’s plays, and you’ll see how much the English language has involved. Shakespeare alone was responsible for adding countless words to our vocabulary. This, no doubt, was met with great debate, similar to today.

Language is a moving thing, constantly twisting and turning, guided by our changing needs. One way to appreciate this is to learn a new language, allowing you to see the world in a whole new way. Contact us to hear more about which courses we offer and start exploring the possibilities of language beyond English! After all, as #BlackLivesMatter shows us, language is a powerful social tool, and the true representative of culture.