At the annual meeting of the venerable American Dialect Society in Boston last week, hashtag, child of the Twitterverse, beat out contenders that included Gangnam style, fiscal cliff and 47 percent for the Society’s Word of the Year for 2012 (“word” being a slightly elastic term). Some might argue that 2012 is a little late to be climbing onto this particular bandwagon (#so2010!), but the verdict of the ADS New Words Committee chair, Ben Zimmer, was that “this was the year when the hashtag became a ubiquitous phenomenon in online talk… spreading bite-sized viral messages on topics ranging from politics to pop culture.”
Incidentally, the losing Republican Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s notorious legitimate rape creation was a winner in not one but two of the Society’s ten categories, topping the “Most Unnecessary” and “Most Outrageous” lists; not surprisingly, the presidential election not only brought its own new category (in which Mitt Romney’s binders [full of women] beat out Eastwooding—talking to empty chairs—and Etch-a-Sketch) but permeated most of the others, including “Most Likely to Succeed” (winner: marriage equality).
Choices that stick
To me, hashtag was an excellent choice considering the strong competition. To do a good job in the “words of the year” business, it’s important to tread a fine line between notoriety and actual usefulness; as I discussed in a piece last month, the Oxford English Dictionary 2012 WOTY in the U.S. was gif (those tiny animated images that blip repeatedly back and forth), which succeeded in being boring, not new and not something most people need every day, all in one. The ADS, on the other hand, tends to make picks that stick: they chose occupy and app for 2011 and 2010, respectively, both of which seem to have definitively made it into the language.
The new air quotes
It turns out that hashtag’s origins can be traced to one man, a career nerd named Chris Messina who now works for Google; in Twitter’s paleolithic days back in 2007, he sent a tweet asking “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?” As we know, that first use—connecting communities with a specific purpose—has by now expanded dramatically, becoming a way to make jokes, sly side comments and disclaimers, which can snowball and often almost take over from the tweet’s original purpose; not to mention contributing to serious “trending” guides to what’s being heavily discussed on Twitter at any given time. “They’re the new air quotes!” says YA novelist and wwword contributor Gayle Forman, who communicates with her readers almost exclusively via Twitter and revels in the way a nifty hashtag can pick up reverberations and responders. #bringingpeopletogether