The Word of the Year is a hashtag: #blacklivesmatter

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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 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.


  1. Jason said,

    January 11, 2015 @ 6:42 pm

    Hashtags are clearly attempts to influence or modify social discourse. So what distinguishes a purely political selection from one that recognises a usage trend is surely whether said hashtag has influenced the discourse. For mine, I'd never heard of "blacklivesmatter" before, not being a habitué of either twitter or reddit — and although I'm totally sympatico with this particular hashtag personally, it's going to be seen as a purely political statement by the American Dialect Society by most.

  2. Mark Mandel said,

    January 11, 2015 @ 8:47 pm

    Why treat "even" as a verb in "I've lost the ability to even" but not in "I can't even"? We see the same ellipsis in both. We can consider it a self-referential rendering of "I […] even describe what I mean." Yes, of course it appears only infinitively; that's because it's the (fictive remnant of a clause that is the) object of a statement of inability.

  3. Mark Mandel said,

    January 11, 2015 @ 8:50 pm

    Your link for your post "The 'Word of the Year' need not be a word" (also) points to Geoff Pullum's post "The 'Word of the Year' should be a word".

    [(bgz) Fixed.]

  4. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    January 12, 2015 @ 2:25 am

    @Mark Mandel: I don't think that "I've lost the ability to even" is really ellipsis, since it's hard to imagine anyone sincerely writing something like "I've lost the ability to even deal with that" (as opposed to "I can't even deal with that anymore"). Rather, "I've lost the ability to even" is a humorous elaboration of (the already-humorous) "I can't even". Whether the best way to interpret this elaboration is with "even" having been reanalyzed as a verb, I'm not sure; but it seems plausible to me.

  5. Lance Nathan said,

    January 12, 2015 @ 2:59 am

    You know, I read the article on The Toast(*), and I'm even less sure than I was before that "even" is a verb. About the sentence "I have lost all ability to can", she writes (emphasis added):

    Loose translation: “This link is so amazing that I have lost my ability to express my appreciation for it in fully formed sentences. All speech has been reduced to this ill-formed sentence. Thus is the depth of my excitement about this. Click on it. Click on it if you too would like to experience this level of incoherent excitement.”

    I think the thing about "I have lost the ability to even" is not that it contains a novel verb at the end, but that it very specifically doesn't contain a verb at the end; it just trails off into incoherence with an adverb that doesn't belong there, which in fact wandered in from another sentence.

    I'm totally fine with "even" being a word of the year in whichever category it ends up, but I think calling it a verb is simply wrong. It's still an adverb, doing its adverby things in place of a verb that can't even.

    (*) OK, I skimmed it, because once she got past the "I can't even" construction and into a defense of internet speech in general, it was no longer about the thing I was interested in, and there were these links to other posts on The Toast, and then it was half an hour later.

  6. richardelguru said,

    January 12, 2015 @ 8:20 am

    "I've lost the ability to can."
    I've never been very cunning when it came to canning.

  7. Catanea said,

    January 12, 2015 @ 8:38 am

    I agree with Lance Nathan. It's the truncatedness that

  8. ConnGator said,

    January 12, 2015 @ 8:55 am

    And the response: #yestallmen

  9. Ginger Yellow said,

    January 12, 2015 @ 9:16 am

    I've never been very cunning when it came to canning.

    It's beyond your ken?

  10. Robert Coren said,

    January 12, 2015 @ 10:35 am

    "I've lost my ability to even": I've given up on evening. Oh, wait…

  11. Mark Mandel said,

    January 12, 2015 @ 12:29 pm

    @Ran Ari-Gur: I don't think that "I've lost the ability to even" is really ellipsis, since it's hard to imagine anyone sincerely writing something like "I've lost the ability to even deal with that" (as opposed to "I can't even deal with that anymore")

    This construction requires "even" to have the last word, or at least be it, and "anymore" has to come after — *"I can't even anymore" — unless the speaker fronts "anymore" ("Anymore, I can't even."), which is still not standard colloquial usage in most of the US. "Truncation" would be a better term than "ellipsis".

    And the argument that "even" is a verb here calls for an explanation of why it can't be conjugated at all (hi, Robert!).

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