Recently, a listener named Harrison wrote in to ask me about something I’d never heard about, called hashtag rap. Here’s an example from the rapper Drake, who is known for using this kind of rap style. One line from his song “Over” goes like this:
I could teach you how to speak my language, Rosetta Stone.
He’s not saying that Rosetta Stone is the name of the language he speaks. If he were, we would classify “Rosetta Stone” as an appositive phrase. He’s also not addressing a listener named Rosetta Stone. If he were, we would classify “Rosetta Stone” as a noun of direct address. What he’s doing is throwing in the name of the famous tablet that enabled archeologists to decipher the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics or more likely, the language-learning software company by the same name. It doesn’t seem to have any particular connection to the rest of the sentence, other than that the idea of teaching a language reminded him of it. So how did this get the name “hashtag rap,” and has this kind of sentence begun to creep into ordinary spoken English?
An article on the website PolicyMic.com gives a concise history of hashtag rap. The name was coined by Kanye West in an interview in 2010, and he also claimed to have invented the style. Other rappers took exception to this claim, and the PolicyMic article even provides an example of what they consider hashtag rap from 2004, from the rapper Killa Cam. Other artists who are known for using hashtag rap include Nicki Minaj, Big Sean, and Ludacris. But even though he didn’t invent it, Kanye West’s name is the one that stuck. In the interview, he said that hashtag rap is “what we call it when you take the ‘like’ or ‘as’ out of the metaphor. ”
Are Hashtags Like Similes or Metaphors?
Whoa! Hold on there a minute! Any fifth grader who paid attention during language arts lessons knows that metaphors don’t use like or as! It’s similes that West is thinking of. (For more on metaphors and similes, listen to episode 85.) So let’s rephrase his claim: hashtag rap is either a simile minus the “like” or “as,” or an ordinary metaphor. Is this accurate?
As far as I can tell, not really. In Drake’s “Rosetta Stone” example, I guess you could say Drake was comparing himself to the Rosetta Stone, but in other examples of hashtag rap, it’s difficult to insist that a comparison is going on. The example that Kanye West gave was from his rap called “Barry Bonds,” and it goes “Here’s another hit—Barry Bonds.” If we were to fully expand out the thought, it might be something like, “A hit, but not like the kind that Barry Bonds hits when he’s at bat.” In other words, you could argue that it’s really the opposite of a comparison. I’d just call it a pun.
Another way that hashtag rap is different from metaphor is that metaphors are an integral part of a sentence. In the kind of metaphors you learn in school, they’re the complement of the verb be, as in “My love is a rock, an immovable force,” which I took from the REO Speedwagon song “Love Is a Rock.” Other metaphors don’t need be, or any verb at all, and these are integral parts of a sentence, too. They fly completely under our radar, showing up in terms like fiscal cliff or idioms such as the ball is in your court. In fact, I used a metaphor when I said metaphors fly under our radar. You might even call this use of radar a dead metaphor. But metaphors like these are so pervasive in language that the linguist Guy Deutscher says that language itself is “a reef of dead metaphors.” (A metaphor about metaphors—I guess this would be a meta-metaphor!) In any case, these metaphors that make up so much of language are not extra phrases dangling off the end of a sentence. They’re subjects, objects, and predicates, and even prepositions, prefixes, and suffixes if they’re really old and very dead.
Why Are They Called Hashtags?
Enough about whether hashtag rap is a kind of metaphor. What about that name “hashtag”? That goes back to the developing use of hashtags in social media. A hashtag is a word or phrase preceded by the character variously known as the hash, pound sign, number sign, tic-tac-toe board, or even octothorpe, and its original use on Twitter was to make a topic easily searchable. Hashtags have been used this way since at least 1992, but Twitter seems to be where they began to expand their function in the direction that gives us hashtag rap. Susan Orlean wrote about this in a post from 2010 in her blog on the New Yorker website, saying, “Hashtags have … undergone mission creep, and now do all sorts of interesting things. Frequently, they are used to set apart a side commentary on tweets….” She notes that the lack of spaces in hashtags makes them look like they’re “being muttered into a handkerchief”; to me, they sound like the kind of muttered phrase that Kevin Nealon’s Mr. Subliminal character on Saturday Night Live would insert into his conversation.
This use of hashtags to insert commentary is the one that inspired Kanye West to give the name “hashtag rap” to the kind of humorous, punning phrases at the end of a line of rap—even though they’re not even written with the hash sign! The absence of hash signs makes sense, given that hashtag rap has been around since before Twitter existed.
Do You Say “Hashtag” Out Loud?
However, even if Twitter hashtags can’t be credited for the rise of hashtag rap, Twitter users’ expanded use of hashtags has had an influence on spoken language. Speakers will sometimes even pronounce the word “hashtag” in order to introduce a snarky comment about something.
To finish, let’s go back to Harrison’s original question, which I never actually stated. He wrote that he and his peers in their 20s tended to use—in their writing—this kind of construction seen on Twitter and heard in some rap songs, and he wondered if there was a name for it. The short answer is: I don’t think a name exists yet. But if so, it’s gone without a name for quite a while. As Mark Liberman noted on a Language Log post about hashtags, “People have been using single words and short phrases for quasi-parenthetical commentary, ironic or otherwise, more or less forever.”
Do you say “hashtag”out loud or do you use hashtags in your writing the way that Harrison is asking about? Tell us about it in the comments!
iTunes named Grammar Girl one of the Best Classic Podcasts of 2013. It’s a real honor, and I’m enormously grateful to the listeners. Without listeners, there is no podcast. I’m also grateful to all the people behind the scenes, including the people on the Quick and Dirty Tips team at Macmillan in New York; my assistant in Reno, Ashley Dodge; the ad brokers and sponsors who make this show possible; and the guest writers who help me keep the show interesting after all these years—Mignon
Mercer, Amira. “Five Things You Didn’t Know About Hashtag Rap.” (June 3, 2013). PolicyMic.com. http://www.policymic.com/articles/45285/5-things-you-didn-t-know-about-hashtag-rap, accessed Oct. 30, 2013.
Deutscher, Guy. The Unfolding of Language. 2005. Metropolitan Books. (Title of chapter 4)
Keegan, Martin. Comment on “Hashtags’ mission creep.” Blog post by Mark Liberman on Language Log. Dec. 29, 2011. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3671#comment-159584, accessed Nov. 4, 2013.
Orlean, Susan. “Hash.” Blog post on Free Range, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/susanorlean/2010/06/hash.html, accessed Nov. 4, 2013.
Liberman, Mark. “Hashtags’ mission creep.” Blog post on Language Log. Dec. 29, 2011. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3671, accessed Nov. 4, 2013.