The phrase Black Lives Matter was coined as a social media hashtag in 2013, sparked by an acquittal in the shooting death of an unarmed African-American teenager. Within a couple of years, it grew from a popular hashtag and rallying cry to the name of a full-fledged political movement in the U.S. and worldwide, aiming to ensure basic human rights for all black people.
The hashtag itself, #BlackLivesMatter, was chosen by the American Dialect Society as its 2014 Word of the Year, because it played such an important role in current political discourse. As a first for a hashtag, the vote led to passionate discussions over whether a hashtag can be a Word of the Year. There was also discussion as to whether a three-word phrase could be considered a word. The society argued that while hashtags, especially phrasal ones, may not fall under “the traditional definition of a word,” some can become “vocabulary items” and end up seamlessly woven into the language.
Originally used as metadata to organize messages on Twitter, hashtags now can function just like words or phrases do. Black Lives Matter, with or without the hashtag, with initial capital letters or entirely in lowercase, is now commonly used as a phrase and can refer to broad, general principles: Does the candidate believe that Black Lives Matter? We need to assert that all black lives matter.
The phrase also has influenced the language of activism, inspiring people to rally around similar hashtags, such as #BlackKidsMatter, #BlackWomenMatter, #BlackLawyersMatter, and #BlackTeachersMatter, which focus the values of the larger movement in support of specific groups within the black community. Another spinoff of Black Lives Matter centers on a profession instead of race: #BlueLivesMatter gained exposure on social media when police officers were killed on duty.
But the visibility of Black Lives Matter has caused some to misinterpret the movement’s mission as valuing black lives above other lives. For example, the hashtags #WhiteLivesMatter (used by a white supremacist group of the same name) and #AllLivesMatter (used by mostly white and conservative critics) have sprung up in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement.
However, these derivative and evolving hashtags have been subject to criticism on varying levels, as many view them as attempts to detract attention from the vital efforts to ensure basic human rights and dignity for all black people.