Back in January, I wrote a blog suggesting that the word of the year might already have been coined. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, I noted how #jesuischarlie had emerged not only as hashtag of solidarity with the French satirical magazine itself but also as a statement for freedom of speech itself. I further speculated that #jesuis may have established itself as a Twitter prefix that would establish itself as a statement of belonging.
The appalling decision of the Charlie Hebdo team to publish two cartoons mocking the death of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian child whose image propelled the migrant crisis across Europe into the consciousness of everybody, has changed all of that.
I won’t describe the cartoons or reproduce them. They have had quite enough oxygen already. Instead let’s focus on the immediate change this has made on social media. Apart from a small number of supporters, #jesuischarlie as a hashtag and a word is now discredited. People are using it on postings as a way of distancing themselves from the mood a few months ago, using the term now becomes a way of emphasising what it stood for and what has therefore been abused.
Instead, #jenesuispascharlie is being used to condemn Charlie Hebdo. Rather than being a term which could take on generic significance, this is simply an attack on the organisation, anger directed at them for wasting the stock of goodwill they had been given, anger even for polluting the term itself.
Calls for freedom of speech will go on, of course they will, and other causes will be found and become the new focus of social media and comment. New terms will come forward to be the one of choice to express adherence to the philosophy. But #jesuischarlie will not be that term, #jesuis will not become a new prefix. That moment has gone.
We may still end up saying that #jesuischarlie is the word of the year. But the narrative we will now tell will be of how a word flourished and died within a year, rather than that of a word which become important and then continued to resonate for many years to come.
Even though 2015 has only just started, I think that we might already have the word of the year. Following the horrifying events in Paris, the hashtag #jesuischarlie has taken off globally. And I am left wondering if there will be a more powerful new term coined during the remainder of 2015.
Use of #jesuischarlie is fascinating in a number of ways. Initially it showed solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo employees who were gunned down on January 7.
But for me it has now become so much more. To put #jesuischarlie in a Twitter post or other article, to put it on a T-shirt or just into your normal conversation, is to associate yourself with a global statement about freedom of speech, is to say that people will not be silenced just because somebody thought it reasonable to take a gun to those who would disagree with them. It is now a badge of belonging, of showing that we will all fight back against terror and not be afraid to say what we think. And its meaning will now stick as the marker of any statement of freedom of speech.
From a linguistic point of view, it demonstrates how language evolution is changing across all cultures. The fact that jesuischarlie is French is irrelevant, it is already an internationally understood term, good in any language. It is already capable of evolution, with #jesuisahmed appearing quickly on Twitter in tribute to Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman who also died in the attack. And it is not fanciful to imagine #jesuis emerging as a permanent prefix, capable of taking countless other endings to make anti-terror statements.
This also shows how hashtags are becoming words in their own right. To emphasise the point, the American Dialect Society this week chose #blacklivesmatter as the word of 2014, referencing emotive protests across North America. Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, said: “While #blacklivesmatter may not fit the traditional definition of a word, it demonstrates how powerfully a hashtag can convey a succinct social message.”
We can only hope that events in Paris will not be the precursor to a year of atrocities and that freedom of speech will not be threatened again in this way. But it is moving to see the way that millions have stood up to have their voices heard, and have found a new word to rally behind.