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Can a Hashtag Be a Word?

H

#jesuischarlie#RupertsFault, and #SOTUBURN: 2015 has already produced hashtags that have sparked national and international conversations. But are hashtags really words?

At the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society in early January, linguists and word enthusiasts vote on the Word of the Year. This year, the overall winner of this vote was the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. Though it first emerged in 2013, #blacklivesmatter surged in popularity in the wake of events of 2014, in particular the decisions of grand juries not to indict police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

This year’s Word of the Year nominations forced those present to answer the question, can a hashtag be a word? For purposes of the Word of the Year vote, ADS members vote not only on single words, but on “vocabulary items,” often called “lexical items.” A lexical item carries meaning that is more than the sum of its parts. Examples of lexical items include high school and conscious uncoupling (a nominee for Most Euphemistic Word of 2014), both of which you can look up in Dictionary.com even though they are technically two words each. This logic of what makes a lexical item was applied to the nominated hashtags. The consensus among linguists at the ADS meeting was that these hashtags have been lexicalized in popular usage. That is, the use of these hashtags resembles that of words, and in some cases, hashtags have moved beyond the realm of metadata. The hashtags began as a way to organize messages on Twitter, but has since morphed into a “rhetorical device in its own right,” as noted by Julia Turner in a 2012 New York Times piece. She hails the hashtag as an “art form” and likens it to a musical refrain, sometimes direct, sometimes tangential, sometimes ironic, the content of which often brings important context and depth to a statement.

It became clear during the nominations that a new category, Most Notable Hashtag, was needed in addition to the already existing ones (Most Useful, Most Creative, Most Unnecessary, Most Outrageous, Most Euphemistic, Most Likely to Succeed, and Least Likely to Succeed). This was in an effort to cover the trending hashtags that carried so much meaning in 2014. This sense of hashtag is a relatively recent coinage. In fact, this same group of linguists voted hashtag as the Word of the Year in 2012. Below is a list of the nominees for Most Notable Hashtag.

MOST NOTABLE HASHTAG
#blacklivesmatter
#icantbreathe
#notallmen
#whyistayed

As the ADS 2014 Word of the Year press release states, members of the American Dialect Society “act in fun and do not pretend to be officially inducting words into the English language.” Rather, their aim is to highlight “that language change is normal, ongoing, and entertaining.” See the rest of the nominees for all Word of the Year categories here.

29 Comments

  1. ^_^ -  October 27, 2015 - 3:08 am

    #aotabridgeshardis

    Reply
  2. Emily -  March 24, 2015 - 10:33 am

    Seriously, hashtags CAN be words…

    Reply
    • FiOS-Dave -  March 29, 2015 - 10:49 pm

      When did it become a hashtag? It pre-dated the Internet by inclusion on the telephone touchpad. It has been called the pound sign. More correctly, it has been called an octomorph!

      Reply
      • Rea Perry -  January 18, 2016 - 8:50 am

        So if you’re talking about #blacklivesmatter, do you say, for example, “I agree with the message that hashtag black lives matter conveys.”? Is hashtag pronounced as a word when speaking?

        Reply
  3. Kit Snicket -  March 15, 2015 - 8:16 pm

    I see hashtags as a way to categorize things.

    NOT SOMETHING TO DROP INTO EVERYDAY SPEECH WHENEVER YOU PLEASE, OTHER COMMENTATORS!

    Ahem.

    My point still stands.

    Now, I have a taxi to drive and some orphans to rescue. Adieu.

    Reply
  4. Fluttershy -  February 12, 2015 - 4:20 pm

    #smileyface:)

    Reply
    • burgers! -  March 5, 2015 - 3:17 pm

      shouldnt it be pizza girl??

      Reply
  5. alien -  February 12, 2015 - 10:39 am

    #uguyscrackmeup Why are you fighting over a symbol that’s on your house phone??? Hashtags, pound signs, whatever you call them, are awesome and they make people happy. #endofstory

    Reply
  6. Isabel -  February 11, 2015 - 8:17 am

    Don’t you just love reading comments and watching people debate of stupid things. I wish I knew who you were it would be #priceless ;)

    Reply
  7. brotha-from-anotha-motha -  February 9, 2015 - 1:15 pm

    oh my gosh. hashtags can be extremely annoying but it can also be used for good. like up there it was used for good. many people don’t have enough confidence in the real world to say something meaningful but they could write it online.

    Reply
  8. Kevin -  February 9, 2015 - 8:53 am

    How did # go from “pound sign” to “hashtag” so quickly?

    Reply
  9. michael -  February 3, 2015 - 5:49 pm

    #

    Reply
  10. Mr. Hashtag -  February 2, 2015 - 8:55 pm

    #Randomness

    Reply
  11. Henny -  February 2, 2015 - 11:30 am

    Ali McKim is right.

    A hashtag IS a symbol of how redicoulous our world has become…

    :)

    Reply
    • brotha-from-anotha-motha -  February 9, 2015 - 1:13 pm

      Okay but you know what else makes this world ridiculous? People who can’t spell.

      Reply
      • alien -  February 12, 2015 - 10:38 am

        #uguyscrackmeup Why are you fighting over a symbol that’s on your house phone??? Hashtags, pound signs, whatever you call them, are awesome and they make people happy. #endofstory

        Reply
  12. Mary Carter -  January 29, 2015 - 10:30 am

    TL;DR?

    Reply
    • Henny -  February 2, 2015 - 11:32 am

      ???

      Reply
  13. joe -  January 27, 2015 - 9:14 pm

    #Legionofboom

    Reply
    • Ali McKim -  January 29, 2015 - 11:45 am

      A HASH TAG IS JUST A SYMBOL OF HOW RIDICULOUS OUR WORLD HAS BECOME…WE LIVE IN A QUAGMIRE OF DISCONNECT…WHERE WHAT IS WRITTEN INTO A DEVICE CARRIES MORE WEIGHT THAN A SIMPLE SMILE, ACCOMPANIED BY “HELLO, HOW ARE YOU?” AND YOU MAY NEVER EVER SEE WHO WROTE WHATEVER: HASH TAG THAT.

      Reply
      • Henny -  February 2, 2015 - 8:36 am
        Reply
      • Henny -  February 2, 2015 - 8:37 am
        Reply
      • Nick Beaumont -  February 4, 2015 - 5:24 am

        Hashtag*

        Reply
        • Henry -  February 12, 2015 - 5:11 pm

          \

          Lol

          Reply
          • Henry -  February 12, 2015 - 5:15 pm

            Calm down, hashtags are just a way of relating to a subject so that if people search, they get something relevant. Don’t think that this is something bad and lazy society created. It just makes thing easier.

    • # -  January 29, 2015 - 4:54 pm

      #urweird

      Reply
      • Henny -  February 2, 2015 - 11:31 am

        Uh…

        Who is weird? And why?

        R u saying Ali McKim is weird? I HOPE you are not!

        Reply
        • Henry -  February 12, 2015 - 5:17 pm

          Ali McKim is weird.

          Reply
      • tierra -  February 3, 2015 - 9:25 am

        if you guys are talking about #’s you should probably should ask one the recent famous people who use them all the time # ridiculous

        Reply

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