For the first time in its history, the American Dialect Society voted for a hashtag as 2014’s Word of the Year.
The phrase in question is #BlackLivesMatter, the resounding call to arms that went viral after the 2013 trial trial of George Zimmerman—who shot and killed teenager Trayvon Martin—saw Zimmerman walk free. It gained traction again in 2014 in response to the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other Black Americans.
Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee for the American Dialect Society, commented on the nontraditional winning phrase:
While #BlackLivesMatter may not fit the traditional definition of a word, it demonstrates how powerfully a hashtag can convey a succinct social message.
The 125-year-old organization is composed of “linguists, lexicographers, etymologists, grammarians, historians, researchers, writers, editors, students and independent scholars.” Of the 220 individuals who voted on 2014’s Word of the Year, 196 voted in favor of the emblematic hashtag.
Originally coined by three Black women activists—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—#BlackLivesMatter has sparked demonstrations, conversations and “die-ins” throughout the United States and abroad. Discussions of police use of excessive force, rampant racial profiling and the militarization of law enforcement have continued in no small part because of the hashtag’s worldwide call for change.