Can a Hashtag Be a Word?

#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.