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Language Nerds Have Different Ideas About 2014’s Word of the Year

#BlackLivesMatter, vape, culture and exposure are 2014’s biggest words, according to dictionary writers and linguists.

Photo by Flickr user All-Nite Images.

#BlackLivesMatter was a protest chant, a movement, a Twitter hashtag, and now it’s one of 2014’s biggest words of the year, according to the experts over at the American Dialect Society. A group of 226 word nerds- etymologists, grammarians, language scholars, and the like- got together and voted to designate #BlackLivesMatter the most important word to come out of the last year, choosing it over bae, even (as in: “I can’t even”) and manspreading.


In the press statement, Ben Zimmer, chair of the Society’s New Words committee and language columnist of the Wall Street Journal, said, “While #blacklivesmatter may not fit the traditional definition of a word, it demonstrates how powerfully a hashtag can convey a succinct social message. Language scholars are paying attention to the innovative linguistic force of hashtags, and #blacklivesmatter was certainly a forceful example of this in 2014.”

This is the first time a Twitter hashtag has been chosen as the Word of the Year (although they declared the word hashtag as the Word of the Year in 2012). Compare the Society’s Word of the Year to that of Merriam-Webster’s, which was culture, or Oxford Dictionary’s, which was vape, or Dictionary.com’s, which was exposure.

If we were to put all these words in a time capsule and send them to the year 3000, what would they say to our future selves about the historical moment we are living in? #BlackLivesMatter is obvious in its implications—47 years after the end of the Civil Rights Movement, the U.S. is still contending with the pervasive legacy of slavery and systemic racism. Vape, too, requires little explaining, though it says more about dudebros in fedoras than it does about society as a whole. Exposure was selected because it was frequently invoked in reference to the Ebola epidemic, as well as in conversations about a number of other news stories this year.

Culture is a little bit harder. Merriam-Webster chose it based on search term frequency, which means that people were obsessed with defining culture this year—pop culture, celebrity culture, and most notably, rape culture.

“Culture is a word that we seem to be relying on more and more. It allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group with seriousness," said Peter Sokolowski, Editor-at-Large for Merriam-Webster. "And it's efficient: we talk about the ‘culture’ of a group rather than saying 'the typical habits, attitudes, and behaviors' of that group. So we think that it may be the increased use of this newer sense of the word culture that is catching people's attention and driving the volume of lookups.”

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