New words and phrases are introduced in media on a constant basis. This year, Oxford English Dictionary officially added YOLO, butt-fuck, clicktivism and gender fluid to its annual list of new words. And the word of the year, elected by The American Dialect Society, was the singular “they” as a gender neutral pronoun-a correct term for non-gender conforming persons.
As society evolves and technology accelerates, old words and phrases seemingly take on new meanings in a rapid fashion.
Notably, in 2014, the word of the year was “because” with a new construction, exemplified here: “I don’t want vanilla cake because reasons,” instead of, “I don’t want vanilla cake because of this reason.”
Words matter. So do the egregious abuses of words, as demonstrated in this year’s presidential election.
Courtesy of Twitter.
But how do new words begin or spread? Which words can trace their genesis to social media? And which words have been a part of society all along, but have morphed into conventional words because of their virality?
Linguists are living in exciting times with prolific advances in technology, particularly artificial intelligence, and the rise of social media. Now, linguists are able to study text in social media, not as a written language but as a written speech, derived from the notion that most people tweet in their native environment using informal or unedited speech.
Noah Smith, courtesy of Dennis Wise.
It’s Bruh, bruh.
Noah Smith, Ph.D., a computer engineer with a background in linguistics, spends much of his time researching natural language processing. This is a branch of computer science that builds algorithms to process language and text; spell checking, Siri, and Google Translate all belong in this group.
A few years ago, Dr. Smith decided to trace the origin and movement of the word “bruh” by using a large dataset of tweets collected from Twitter over a 1.5 year span.
He and his research partner, Jacob Eisenstein, a sociolinguist expert who teaches at Georgia Tech, built a dynamic model that tracked the movement of new Twitter words across time and space. (Apparently, an estimate of 10-20 percents of tweets have geo coordinates, which makes this research possible).
They discovered there is a correlation between geography and words, and that new words tend to spread in a geographical parameter that is local.
“It [‘bruh’] popped up in Georgia, and as we tracked the word over time, it spread across the south, and even showed up as far as Los Angeles” shares Dr. Smith.
However, the duo’s most exciting findings were the similarities discovered between the cities and the people who shared words. “Cities and people with geographic proximity, and who also share similar socioeconomic and racial makeup, tend to share more with each other,” explains Dr. Smith.
In their “subway map” of urban sensors, the two researchers were able to distinguish clear patterns of connectivity, in one example with a large number of Hispanic speakers in the south who interacted with other Hispanic speakers and cities with a similar Hispanic presence.
Likewise, in the midwest, with its higher density of whites, people were sharing words and interacting with identical communities.
Black Twitter, a prominent cultural movement, is yet another group that belongs to the online communities who form bonds across geographic lines with groups of shared experiences, ethnicities or socioeconomics.
April Reign, courtesy of April Reign.
Black Twitter, a powerful hashtag machine
“Black Twitter is a community of those who appreciate the black experience and have similar interests,” explains Ms. Reign. She notes, however, that it’s not limited to black people.
Ms. Reign created the hashtag in January of 2015 because she was dismayed with the lack of representation for marginalized communities in the Oscar nominations.
This is a good example of a phrase that came into existence organically through a social media channel.
“It started off very snarky and sarcastic, but eventually took a life of its own and became a more important discussion,” she muses.
Tweet courtesy #Paulas best dishes.
Indeed, the hashtag #Oscarsowhite trended internationally and has come to spur movements in other communities such as the Asian-American one, a community who also demand more visibility and representation on popular entertainment platforms.
It is fair to say that hashtags are a new form of a civil rights movement.
The hashtag #Oscarsowhite controversy prompted a movement that led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ President Cheryl Boone Isaacs to initiate a diversification and widening of its membership base.
And the hashtag #Blacklivesmatter is a part of the national dialogue.
The same can be said about any other hashtag that is trending and forcing people to closely examine the world, including Feminist Twitter’s hashtag #NotOkay started by Kelly Oxford (after Trump’s controversial remarks about women) that encourages women to share their sexual assault stories.
To further illustrate just how convoluted and interwoven the human experience is online, there are also movements within movements, such as a Feminist Twitter within Black Twitter by the popular hashtag #UokSis.
It was started by blogger Feminista Jones, who witnessed a woman being harassed on a street and, thereby, encouraged others to engage in harassment prevention.
There’s also an LGBT Twitter…and so on.
Remarkably, what can be deduced from the plethora of hashtag expressions in a digital milieu is that the way we identify, or who we identify with, provides an instant presentation of selfhood in a larger social context.
Nicole Holliday, Ph.D., a Linguist scholar whose research focuses on what it means to sound black, points out that it is very common for people to engage in ethnic identity performances online.
“On Twitter, when someone writes ‘who dat?’–a distinctive black pronunciation–they oftentimes are telling us who they are,” notes Dr. Holliday.
She also emphasizes that a person has full control over one’s tweets, and he/she is likely signaling that they want to be recognized for belonging to any given community when they decide to hashtag themselves.
Even more telling, she says, can be the way a person spells a word.
“A person that writes ‘YAAAS QUEEN!’ with the additional A’s, is telling you how it’s pronounced,” states Dr. Holliday. “Not a curt ‘yes’ but a lively, exaggerated ‘YAAAS’ that allows you to almost hear the tonality while reading it.”
“YAAAS QUEEN!” & “On Fleek” are so yesteryear
It would be easy to assume that new words are invented at a faster rate with the help of expeditious technology and the momentum of social media.
Dr. Smith suspects this isn’t the case. He attributes the spread of online words with viral traction, simply “words spread faster because we have a record of them,” and that doesn’t mean they are invented faster.
But do all the new words and phrases of social media stand the test of time?
Some words like “selfie” or “like” are instantly attributed to social media, as they describe actions integrated into Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram that are required for engagement in those mediums.
They’ll probably be relevant for a long while.
Other words like “bruh” and phrases like “bye Felicia” have been a part of select communities before the advent of social media. They morphed into household words only when they gained viral traction and spread.
According to Dr. Holliday, these words aren’t likely to stick around in a widespread fashion. “As soon as the ‘suburban moms’ of America know a new word and the same word appears on Urban Dictionary, then that word is dead,” she amusingly points out.
She claims the term ”on fleek” is a good example of this imminent flame-out of words. The same goes for “YAAAS QUEEN!”
Brands pandering to consumers by staying on top of Twitter trends are also guilty of catching on too late, just like suburban mothers are.
No one drives this point home better than the satire Twitter account with the handle @brandssayingbae that actively shames brands for this very reason.
As one may recall, “Bae” (baby) was the du jour trendy word for a hot minute, but not so much anymore.
Contrary, Hamburger Helper, yes the Hamburger Helper, who goes by the handle @helper, is one brand that truly has mastered the Twitterverse. Ms. Reign agrees and thinks “Hamburger Helper does a great job of using the vernacular that we use in Black Twitter. Many brands fail at this.”
Hamburger Helper tweet.
Hamburger Helper is, in fact, so relevant, they’ve even gone so far as to release a mixtape: “Watch The Stove” (a take on Kanye West’s “Watch the Throne” album). And it’s on fleek…I mean, it’s lit.