Making a hash of the #


So ‘hashtag’ has been named as the children’s word of the year. The Oxford University Press (no less) has come to this conclusion after its analysis of 120,421 entries to a short story competition run by BBC Radio 2. According to the OUP, this doesn’t mean children are necessarily tweeting, but using the word and the symbol for dramatic effect or heightening tension.

At first I preferred last year’s word ‘minion’. But now I’ve discovered that a minion is a small yellow blob from an animated film. I thought it meant all the stories were about princesses and magic kingdoms, but what do I know?

I also thought that Americans called the #, ‘the pound sign’ because they had no £ sign on their keyboard. But, in fact, it’s the other type of pound or lb, short for the Latin term ‘libra’. As far back as the 17th century, writers would put a line across the top to indicate that this was a contraction, hence the #. Little did they know what they’d started.

But to return to the short stories. I feel slightly sorry for all those children who used the hashtag, thinking they were being witty and edgy, when in reality they were just following the herd. Which made me think about the narrow border between reflecting the zeitgeist and cliché (and I use the former at the risk of it being the latter).

As we write about technology at Whiteoaks, we’re probably as near to the frontline as you can get on this matter as far as words are concerned. It’s a difficult one; in the search engine-driven space we inhabit, being too different is seldom rewarded. People search the internet using standard terms and want to know what a product or service does in plain language. We’ve all read the ‘about us’ page of a website which waffles on and been left thinking, ‘yes, but what do you actually do?’ Certain phrases and buzzwords act as a signpost or shortcut telling the reader that their search has taken them to the right place.

However, this doesn’t mean we should ‘leverage’ or ‘upscale’ away to our heart’s content. Or be like the children who’ve entered this contest and become increasingly hyperbolic. According to the OUP, instead of ‘big’, ‘great’ and ‘fantastic’ they’ve been more likely to use ‘colossal’, ‘magnificent’ and ‘delightful’. Translate these to business speak and you end up with ‘market leader’, ‘dynamic’ and ‘value-added’. We’re all guilty.

And what would be the tech word of the year? My bet would be ‘agile’ but a quick survey around the office has come up with ‘deep-dive’, ‘disrupt’ and the most disliked ‘journey’. What one of us found groan-inducing, another found tolerable or useful. We all have our ‘likes’. Yet the world of technology isn’t dull and banal, but exciting and evolving. Let’s allow ourselves a little eloquence to reflect this now and again.

Going back to the OUP analysis, it seems most of the most popular words used by the children were social media and technology related. Perhaps the most interesting were those that had gone down on the list – ‘MP3’, ‘iPod’, ‘Nintendo’ and ‘Blackberry’.

Come to think of it, the word ‘omnishambles’ was named as word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary back in 2012; but now that Malcolm Tucker is, in fact, Dr Who, when was the last time you heard it used?

So it seems that these words run their own course and die of overuse when the time comes. Except for ‘hashtag’. As a symbol it’s obviously been going for around 400 years, so perhaps these children know what they are doing. Either way I won’t be predictable and end this with a #blogover . That would be a cliché – and even a bit of a hash.