The 2014 Word of the Year is #blacklivesmatter

The American Dialect Society votes: The 2014 Word of the Year is #blacklivesmatter.

I’ve been at a few of these votes at the annual Linguistic Society of America meeting, although not this one, and I am pleasantly surprised by how this turned out. This is a far cry from the LSA reviewer that rejected my paper proposal in 2010 with only this comment: “This paper appears to be about the Internet, which is not real linguistics.”

Besides being a little bit of vindication for me, this is a pretty historic moment for the field of linguistics for a number of reasons.

First, this is the first time the society has voted on a hashtag as a “word” of the year. Traditionally, the WOTY can be a phrase as long as the phrase itself has one new and special meaning in that year. For example, one year that I was present, the term “enhanced pat-down” was nominated and accepted for nomination. This is obviously a set of words, but it was a term used by the TSA to describe their personally invasive frisking procedure that they used at American airports. Even though phrases have a history of being part of the WOTY proceedings, hashtags certainly haven’t. This is an acknowledgment by a society of linguists that hashtags function like words. (They’re, essentially, discourse markers.)

Second, this represents a sea change in the field to be more inclusive of the ways that technology impacts language use. It was only in 2012 that the LSA decided that “hashtag” was its word of the year, and in just two years it has gone from finally recognizing that hashtags are a thing to actually voting for a hashtag itself as a word of the year. I believe that this is a sign that things are changing in the LSA, and perhaps that the study of computer-mediated communication isn’t viewed as a fad or a “lesser” topic. I opted out of joining the LSA and continuing to participate in the meetings because I felt that the society as a whole was unwelcoming to the kind of work that I do, and I hope that this may not be the case anymore.

Third, this is an excellent example of a scholarly society finally deciding to take a political stand about something. For so long, scholarly societies have ostensibly remained neutral and objective, even though they could have a place at the forefront of political thought. As nerdy as it might seem, the Word of the Year vote is a big deal and gets major news coverage; this society of linguists decided to use that to make a statement in a decidedly linguistic way. I think it’s about time that linguists did this because this kind of belief is absolutely fundamental to our field. All language matters; all lives matter.

Here’s the news article from the American Dialect Society itself, as well as a good article on the vote from Time Magazine.