Hush, Little Hashtag: the use of technology as personal names

OUPblog's 2012 words of the year

2013 has begun with a substantial amount of reflection on 2012: I recently joined Twitter, and seeing so many end-of-the-year lists being tweeted has been both novel by quantity, and boring in repetition.

Further, at the beginning of January I attended an academic conference that had its attendees consider the language that was used in America over the past year:  The American Name Society selected 2012’s Names of the Year, and the American Dialect Society selected 2012’s Words of the Year; both voted on winners in several categories. (The Names of the Year are noted in my previous post and Ben Zimmer has written a great account of choosing the Words of the Year.)

These opportunities to vote for names and words of 2012 had my head abuzz with a kind of backward scan over my memories of all the media I’d ingested, and it made me a little woozy.  But something that became obvious is the significant, and potentially increasing, imprint of technology on our day-to-day language. The image-link above is to OUPblog’s aggregation of words of the year for 2012 and from it, you can see that the words GIF and hashtag– key nouns in online communication– were popular(ized) this year.

Above, in yellow, YOLO (“You Only Live Once,” abbreviated), is another top word of 2012, which also came to our awareness via technology. This mantra-as-acronym, a close relative to the descriptive-acronym LOL, is ascendant largely because of its utility via text and Twitter. (Additionally, YOLO was popularized in a song from that poet, Drake. And as a complete aside, he’d now like some return from sales of YOLO merchandise.)

Many ways that technology impacts our use of language were correctly foreseen by Marshall McLuhan in his broadly interpretable “The Medium is the Message.” McLuhan suggests that the particular characteristics of the mediums through which we communicate work to shape what and how we communicate. Because “words” like LOL and YOLO are easy to use via technology, they become broadly used in some subcultures, and then the rest of us come to know them, too. While “hashtag” and “GIF” are more broadly accepted, they too are only in the working-lexicon of the few. The conference I was at yielded some tweets, but certainly no critical mass of attendees were on Twitter– actually using hashtags– yet this group selected hashtag as the word of the year.

Though fewer still at the conference had heard of YOLO (or potentially, even, of Drake), with its cute roll-y Os, and youthful irreverence, YOLO also won. This demonstrates that technology doesn’t impact just the language of the people who actually use it; it has a ripple effect. And another ripple: there was outrage amongst a younger set on Twitter when this, um, more-established demographic sent #YOLO trending yet again, via these end-of-the-year musings.

But then, there is this other, potentially more significant, effect that I’m trying to make sense of: the use of technology as personal names.  Yes, the word of the year is also a name! Late in 2012, it was reported that parents named their infant daughter “Hashtag,” to the chagrin of most who heard the name. “Facebook,” and the more affirmative and specific, “Like,” are further examples of names given to now-toddlers that reference the social networking technologies which define this era.

Plenty of head-shaking and jokes have accompanied the news of these name choices. And I’m wondering why: what is so discomfiting about the use of technology as names? Is this a level of technology-creep that we just can’t accept? Perhaps. Here are some of the ways that technology continues to creep into language:

  1. Social networking (texting, tweeting, Facebook) technologies shape how we use language (more concisely, abbreviated, playing with upper/lower case);
  2. Use of these technologies has us making particular word choices: acronyms (LOL, YOLO), nouns that name technology and its components (GIF, hashtags), verbs that describe our actions with technology (tweet);
  3. Based on the example of these end-of-the-year selections and lists, including how many there are and how visible each is, we can include the effect of these technologies in spreading both information and language-use rapidly and between regions;
  4. And beyond the ways that social networking technologies affect everyday language, they are now implicated in that special class of words that interests me most: names.  Why bestow on a child the names of these technologies, just as we might name her/him after a family member, or a personal hero?

Technology-as-names seems to go too far.  I mean, how many children were named after earlier, pre-digital, infrastructures like bridges and buildings? Weren’t those structures, instead, named to honour people?

And then, why did social networking technologies catch on as names where earlier digital technologies did not? Perhaps this is because of how they are performative technologies, identity-establishers. Rather than building their identities via social networking platforms, through naming these kids become the platforms.

Maybe the issue is the movement away from naming people with names for/of people? There is an irreverent leap being made in these choices toward technology-as-names.  This playful blurring of object and human disturbs.  But how bad can it be? Through these names could humans perhaps become a little less human and a bit more thing? Unlikely. And really, how reverent are these wild new spellings of names, or the naming of babies after pop stars?

But, if it remains more accepted to stick with people’s names, apparently the name “Drake” comes highly recommended: easy to spell, easy to pronounce, kind of aspirational.  Not unlike YOLO.