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Indiana State professor nominates Word of the Year

February 5, 2015

An Indiana State University professor who nominated the much-buzzed-about 2014 Word of the Year downplays her role, saying she simply said what everyone else was thinking.

The American Dialect Society selected #blacklivesmatter as the Word of the Year by an overwhelming majority -- 196 votes, compared to just 11 votes for the second-place nominee.

"I just nominated it. I didn't do anything really important," said Leslie Barratt, professor of linguistics at Indiana State. "I just stood up when someone needed to stand up. That was not the important thing - the important thing is the people behind the issue, who had been thinking about it for weeks and months."

While Barratt has received both support and criticism -- including a racist email from a stranger that she deleted -- for her nomination, she said she's glad Sonja Lanehart, an African-American linguistics professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio, has been getting most of the publicity, as Lanehart was really the person behind the momentum.

Still, Barratt, who sits on the diversity council at Indiana State, is glad she had the opportunity to be an advocate for an important cause.

"People advocating for themselves are sometimes taken less seriously. ‘Of course you feel this way because ...' So when you're not in the group in some way, you're in a better position to advocate," she said. "It affects us all. Racial tension doesn't help anyone -- having people or police not trusting groups of people, it just hurts society."

Barratt and Betty Phillips, also a professor of linguistics, attended the joint conference of the Dialect Society and Linguistics Society of America on Jan. 9 in Portland, Ore. Both professors are retiring at the end of the semester and were recruiting new talent for the department.

While dictionary publishers also select their annual picks, the Dialect Society invented the practice 25 years ago. Barratt has nominated words in the past -- "Pokemania" in 2000 -- but this year's conference had a much different tone.

"Most of the nominations and momentum were for very politically charged words, because this was a year of political and social and racial turmoil and tension," Barratt said. "There were a lot of terms that expressed that. ‘Columbusing' (meaning cultural appropriation) was one of the words, ‘manspreading' (referring to a man sitting with one's legs wide on public transit in a way that blocks other seats). Some of the hashtags were ‘#whyIstayed' and ‘notallmen.'"

With such passion driving many of the nominees, the room was overflowing with people. Barratt, at just 5-feet tall, had to work her way to the front of the room. When the time came to nominate Word of the Year, Barratt found herself near the microphone.

"It's clear all of us in this room feel this way -- it's a powerful issue and we need to make this statement," she said. "The one Word of the Year is the only word that gets out into the media. I thought, ‘I'm close to the microphone; I'm going to do it.' I didn't really think more than a split second about it."

Barratt grew up in "a very integrated area with lots of different cultures with immigrants from different places" near New York City and participated in the Civil Rights Movement.

"I heard Coretta Scott King speak twice. There were all kinds of protests in the '60s and '70s that I saw and participated in," she said. "Progress has been in the laws but not in the enforcement and not in society."

The United States isn't alone in its racial struggles, though, Barratt said.

"When we lived in China, some people would literally cross the street to move away from me or especially my husband, who is very tall and looks Russian. Children would hide or run away," she said. "It was interesting to be on the other side."

The Word of the Year being a hashtag has scandalized some traditionalists, as a hashtag is often a phrase and technically not a word.

"Hashtags are becoming units -- they are units of language. A word is just a unit of language, and it's not even the smallest unit of language," Barratt said. "I think it is legitimate. Languages are in constant change."

Barratt herself doesn't have a Twitter account, nor does she even use hashtags.

"As an older person, I like the idea of a hashtag being a word. As a linguist, that resonates with me," she said. "I've seen them become units -- even though I'm not inventing them and using them, they've become units to me, too. If they've become units to me -- someone who doesn't use them - then clearly, they're units to the younger generations."

When one is trying to learn a language, it's a moving target, Barratt said. Take, for instance, the device almost all of us have in our purses or pockets to make phone calls. First, it was a "mobile phone," then "cell phone," now "iPhone" or simply "smart device."

"Linguists don't get horrified (by change); we get fascinated. Linguistics is a science," she said. "Some people study corpses, or some people study other things that people find unpleasant. There are many linguists who study curse words or other parts that people find unpleasant. Hashtags themselves aren't unpleasant, and hashtags are powerful. To some extent, they're like slogans or emblems. They're becoming a way that people voice things sometimes."

"I hope someone writes a book on (hashtags) soon, but it'll be outdated the minute they write it," she added. "That's the problem with looking at modern language changes."


Contact: Leslie Barratt, professor of linguistics, Indiana State University, 812-237-2677 or

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or