'Marriage Equality' Narrowly Loses American Dialect Society's Vote on 2012's Word of the Year

Friday night in Boston the American Dialect Society gathered in a meeting to vote for the 2012 word of the year, and they came very close to choosing "marriage equality." Instead, "hashtag" was selected in a close run-off vote of 118 to 99.

In a press release posted shortly after the vote, the American Dialect Society explained that "Word of the Year is interpreted in its broader sense as 'vocabulary item' -- not just words but phrases. The words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year." Other candidates for the word of the year included "YOLO" (an acronym for "you only live once"), "fiscal cliff," "Gangnam style" and "47 percent."

"Marriage equality" did win the "Most Likely to Succeed" category, one of eight categories that are voted on before the overall word of the year, in a landslide vote. It trounced the competition, which included "fiscal cliff," "superstorm," "MOOC" (for "massive open online course") and "big data," with a total of 156 votes. The other four contenders combined had a total of 41 votes.

Joe Kessler, a Ph.D. student in the linguistics department at the University at Buffalo who writes the Language Hippie blog, was present at the vote (his second) and made what was considered a strong argument for "marriage equality" for the "Most Likely to Succeed" category. Kessler summarized his argument to me via email, writing:

[T]his past year saw a large increase in people using the term "marriage equality" in place of other expressions like "gay marriage" or "same-sex marriage" for roughly the same political position. (I'm not certain whether I had heard the phrase before 2012, but it was certainly not being used in mainstream news coverage as it is now.) I also made the observation that this shift in standard usage seems to map onto a shift in public perception of the issue at hand. In 2012, for the first time, polls were consistently showing a majority of Americans in favor of equal access to marriage, regardless of the orientation or gender of the individuals involved. I think as the public began embracing what many had before been calling "gay marriage," the alternate expression "marriage equality" gained prominence as a rallying cry of sorts, emphasizing the necessity of the policy in a country that claims to treat all its citizens as equals.

Arguments in favor of "marriage equality" for word of the year, according to Kessler, "seemed to emphasize both the reasons that made it such a strong candidate for the expression most likely to succeed and the recent political victories that the corresponding movement has achieved in various states across America." In contrast, according to people tweeting the event, arguments in favor of "hashtag" focused more narrowly on linguistic concerns, or how "hashtag" this year seemed to move beyond a mere Twitter categorizing device and into the language more generally, including the spoken language, as a way of doing metadiscourse, or talk about talk, which may have made the difference in the close vote. (For more on the hashtag, check out Julia Turner's "#InPraiseOfTheHashtag.")

Not everyone is happy about the result of the word of the year (or WOTY) vote. For example, sociolinguist Maryam Bakht of Hunter College, a WOTY fan who describes the event as "one of my best most favorite days of the year," was frustrated with what seemed like voters' obsession with Twitter-related words. She tweeted, "Is it possible for #woty12 voters to stop being so amazed by twitter?" and, "I feel like woty votes always are like look at how technocool we are! We know about twitter!" Bakht nevertheless felt that "hashtag" was "the better of the two" options in the run-off vote, and she is already looking forward to next year.

It is unlikely that the choice of "marriage equality" as the word most likely to succeed will influence speakers' language use, and this is not the point of the WOTY vote. Rather, it is the fact that speakers have been choosing the term over "gay marriage" and "same-sex marriage" in greater numbers, as well as the term's newsworthiness thanks to the success of marriage equality -- the issue -- at the ballot box in November 2012 and the history-making support from the president in May 2012, that made it a serious contender for word of the year and win the "Most Likely to Succeed" category. Voters were likely aware that this is a crucial point in the history of the struggle for marriage equality, and that the terminology used to frame the debate is not inconsequential. Jordan Whitlock, who attended the vote, tweeted that the "Argument for 'marriage equality' as the future term for history books changed my vote away from 'big data'" in the "Most Likely to Succeed" vote.

Kessler, who did not vote for "marriage equality" for the overall word of the year, explains, "The arguments against, I think, were largely that neither the word nor the movement seemed intrinsically linked with 2012; it would be very easy to mention 'marriage equality' without reference to this past year as a notable moment in its history." Perhaps, with the Supreme Court agreeing to hear two major cases related to marriage equality in 2013, "marriage equality" will end up being intrinsically linked with this upcoming year and have a chance at being voted the word of the year at next year's meeting of the American Dialect Society.

According to the American Dialect Society's press release, its members "include linguists, lexicographers, etymologists, grammarians, historians, researchers, writers, editors, students, and independent scholars" who "[i]n conducting the vote ... act in fun and do not pretend to be officially inducting words into the English language. Instead they are highlighting that language change is normal, ongoing, and entertaining." The meeting was free and open to the public, and at the time of the vote, the room was reportedly standing-room only. Kessler reports, "It's a lot of fun for everyone involved, and a great opportunity to get the public interested in and excited about the topics of language and language change. He adds, "It was just a blast to get together with people in that crowded room and literally all over the world [via Twitter] to share this excitement about language."