“‘Emoji,’ ‘ebola’ lead top words for 2014

(PHOTO: Pietro Zanarini, Creative Commons license)

(PHOTO: Pietro Zanarini, Creative Commons license)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

To continue my annual tradition of writing about the year’s top words and how they shape our world I will have to explain not just the word, but the very concept of “emoji” to many, many grandmas and grandpas, including my own, who will read these words as ink on paper.

If I survive, and this is an “if” proposition, I will then explain how “ebola” and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” are also part of this year’s list of top words designated by the Austin, Texas-based Global Language Monitor. To quote a famous line by Bette Davis, a popular actress of the 1930s and ‘40s, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night. ”

The GLM observes how words are used around the world using exhaustive online searches. It picks up both momentary and long term trends to see how the English language is changing, and showing the role of culture in those changes.

So what’s an “emoji,” this year’s top word? It’s one of those little pictures you see people adding to their text messages, tweets and e-mails. Actually, the “official” top word isn’t even “emoji,” it’s the most popular emoji: a tiny heart shape.

“Each emoji represents an emotion, expression, or state of mind, or a person, place or thing, so much so, that we see the birth of the AlphaBorg or AlphaBit.” said Paul JJ Payack, president and chief word analyst of the Global Language Monitor. “The English Language is now undergoing a remarkable transformation unlike any in its 1400 year history —  its system of writing, the Alphabet, is gaining characters at amazing rate. These character are ideographs or pictographs that are called emoji and emoticons. There are about a thousand emoji characters now officially recognized by Unicode Consortium, the official keepers of coding that forms the basis of the Internet.”

What he’s saying is that it is entirely possible to communicate using emoji alone. If you don’t believe me, read a teenager’s text messages. If you’re still catching up to “LOL,” you’re going to say “WTF” when you realize that the kids are talking in symbols now. Worse yet, they’re probably talking about you.

Further review of the top words list shows a murderer’s row of changing culture: Hashtag is back, along with vape (e-smoking), Blood Moon, nano, photo bomb, caliphate, white privilege, bae (term of endearment for a crush), and “bash” tag. You can read the full list at http://www.languagemonitor.com.

The GLM also tracks popular names. Last year’s Top Name was Pope Francis, but the pontiff fell to #2 in 2014, behind “Ebola.” The deadly disease that re-emerged in parts of Africa this year managed to capture the attention of millions of Americans during the run-up to the November midterm elections. Then, after the election, Ebola was no longer profitable or useful for people to be afraid. The handful of cases contracted by medical personnel in the U.S. were treated successfully, so the story was removed from the news. Nevertheless, thousands of people are still dying due to Ebola in Africa.

GLM’s top phrase this year was “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” taken from the popular chant by protestors in Ferguson, Missouri. By now, most are familiar with the case of a young unarmed black man Michael Brown who was shot by a white police officer after a widely contested series of events. The phrase implies that black Americans must walk the streets assuming they could be confronted or even shot by police if they don’t raise their hands at a moment’s notice, a grim lesson to teach one’s child.

Racial attitudes, disparities and stereotypes continue to push and shape human language and behaviors. Indeed, the biggest lesson from having a black president might have been to show how deep those divides really were after decades of pretending they didn’t exist. Words and phrases don’t make or solve the problems; only people can do that.

I’m reminded of the quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” That line holds up well over the ages. Those words are old.

The Global Language Monitor word list does show the degree to which we’ve changed. The organization’s first “top word” in 2000 was “Dot.com.” Now, after just 15 years, we’ve graduated to symbolic language being developed for the Web, which is now much, much more than just pages on a screen.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, Dec. 14 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. SMH

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