At the American Dialect Society annual conference (held in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America in Portland, OR), the 2014 Word of the Year was a rather unusual choice: the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. I presided over the voting session (in my capacity as the society's Chair of the New Words Committee). You can read the official announcement here and my recap of Friday night's voting in my Word Routes column for Vocabulary.com here.
While the word hashtag was ADS WOTY in 2012, hashtags themselves attracted a great amount of attention this time around. At the nominating session on Thursday evening, while some proposed adding an extra category for emoticons and emoji, we ultimately decided that the category we would add (along with the usual categories like Most Likely to Succeed, Most Useful, and Most Outrageous) would be Most Notable Hashtag. Nominees in the category included the following hashtags:
#blacklivesmatter: protest over blacks killed at the hands of police (esp. Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in Staten Island)
#icantbreathe: final words of Eric Garner, turned into rallying cry against police violence
#notallmen: response by men to discussions of sexual abuse, sexism, or misogyny that they see as portraying all men as perpetrators (countered by #yesallwomen, used by women sharing stories of bias, harrassment, or abuse)
#whyistayed: explanation by women about staying in abusive domestic relationships
In Friday's voting session, #blacklivesmatter was an overwhelming favorite in the new hashtag category. And when it came time to select and vote on the overall WOTY nominees, #blacklivesmatter again swamped the competition.
It just so happens that all of the nominated hashtags are based on three-word phrases, and most of them, like #blacklivesmatter, constitute full clauses. Phrases have always been deemed acceptable candidates of ADS Word of the Year, as long as they can also be considered lexical items. (For debate on this point, see Geoff Pullum's 2011 post, "The 'Word of the Year' should be a word" and my response, "The 'Word of the Year' need not be a word.")
But it's still an open question to what extent the "hashtagification" of a phrase makes it lexical, and not simply because spaces are removed from the phrase. (Sometimes the words that make up a hashtag are internally capitalized, as in #BlackLivesMatter, but the "upstyle" and "downstyle" versions vary freely.) Clearly, there's a great deal of linguistic innovation going on involving hashtags. This is something that the ADS has recognized since 2011, when occupy was named WOTY, in large part thanks to the Occupy Movement's use of #occupy hashtags.
Speaking of innovation, one of the runners-up in the overall WOTY voting, as well as the winner of the Most Useful category, was an innovative use of even:
even: deal with or reconcile difficult situations or emotions (from “I can’t even”).
As I explain in my Word Routes recap, "I can't even" is elliptical for something like "I can't even deal with that" or "I can't even handle that." (See Mark Liberman's post "What does 'even' even mean?" for more on the emphatic usage of even.) But the elliptical expression has been playfully reinterpreted in online usage, with even treated something like a verb, as in "I've lost the ability to even." As Larry Horn has pointed out, it is at best a highly defective verb in this context, since it only appears infinitivally. Even more bizarrely, can can also be treated like a main verb instead of a modal, as in "I've lost the ability to can." For more, see discussions from Tia Baheri on The Toast, Michael Reid Roberts on The American Reader, and Gretchen McCulloch on All Things Linguistic.