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Language history leading to ‘selfie’

By Melissa Mohr


To celebrate selfie’s tenure as Word of the Year, here are some WOTYs from the past, which may shed some light on its development.

1839—daguerreotype This was the earliest easily practicable photographic process, which employed a silver plate that had been sensitized to light by iodine. The plate was put in a camera and exposed to sunlight for three to thirty minutes. The exposed plate was held over hot mercury vapor until an image appeared, and finally desensitized by submersion in a hot solution of common salt.

The term daguerreotype spread quickly through the English language as name for both this process and its finely-detailed, silvery product, helped along by the French government’s decision to release Louis Daguerre’s method as a free gift to the world (he got a lifetime pension in return). Photograph—referring more generally to any image made by a camera—also made its first appearance in 1839, but it took a couple of decades before it became the most common word for such an image.

Just two months after Daguerre’s process was publicized, Philadelphian Robert Cornelius set up a camera and sat perfectly still in front of it for 15 minutes, producing the world’s very first selfie. Having nowhere to post it, he contented himself with opening a photographic studio. (He has had quite the internet afterlife, though, being featured prominently on sites such as My Daguerreotype Boyfriend and Bangable Dudes in History.)

Robert Cornelius, self-portrait, 1839. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
The first selfie. After 174 years and billions of tries, this has never been improved upon.

1586—self- Around this year, there was a sudden explosion of “self-” words. Self is an Old English word and had been in common use as a pronoun and adjective as far back as our records go. Near the end of the 16th century, however, it spawned dozens of compounds, from self-destruction, self-flattering, self-guard [“reserve”], and self-seeking [“selfishness”] (1586)* to self-liking (1561), self-love (1563), self-murder (1570), and self-assurance (1595). In this period, there was an increasing interest in self-examination (a later word; 1647) and consideration of people as individuals as opposed to members of a family, church, or society. The various Puritan sects prominent at the time laid strong emphasis on one’s personal relationship with God, and encouraged believers to scrutinize their consciences daily to tally up the ways in which they had sinned and the ways in which they managed to avoid temptation. The first diaries, records of these spiritual examinations, date from this period. The fact that many of the sixteenth-century self- compounds have quite negative connotations indicates that even as the idea of individuality was spreading, there was cultural unease about the degree to which it can shade into narcissistic self-conceit (1593) or self-regard (1595).

Selfie cleverly mitigates the self-pride (1586, again)—the ostentatious narcissism—associated with taking a picture of oneself and broadcasting it over social media to be “liked.” The “ie” suffix has been an English diminutive since the 15th century, making the nouns to which it is attached sound cute and child-like—laddie (1546), grannie (1663), and dearie (1681), for example.

1000—friend. This is one of the oldest words in our language, found in Beowulf  and other Anglo-Saxon texts. It has been used as a verb—“to friend,” meaning to make friends—since the thirteenth century, but of course only since the beginning of the 21st century have these friends been virtual. It is integral to the definition of selfie that these online friends see it; it must be distributed on social media. There is a rather bleak way to look at this. Selfies are a sign of the growing isolation of people in modern life. People in the past didn’t take selfies, because they had friends in the Beowulf sense of the word to take pictures for them. Numerous contributors to Urban Dictionary, a popular site about contemporary slang, make similar points about the selfie: “You can usually see the person’s arm holding out the camera in which case you can clearly tell that this person does not have any friends to take pictures of them so they resort to Myspace to find internet friends.”

Melissa Mohr takes a selfie. Image courtesy of the author.
Melissa Mohr takes a selfie. Image courtesy of the author.

We can put a more positive spin on this trend too. Like Robert Cornelius, people have always wanted to make pictures of themselves. In the past, however, this was hard to do. Painting a self-portrait demanded skill and time, and was often financially irresponsible, as it was better to paint a picture of someone else, who could pay you. When photography began, it was at first difficult to sit still long enough, then hard to focus the camera, and expensive to develop the film. Now with iPhones and digital cameras, you can take hundreds of photos before finding the perfect one where you’re not blurry, both eyes are open, and most of your head is in the shot. Selfies are cheap and easy, and give us the chance to get great pictures of ourselves in front of the sunset, next to a really cute cat, or in a really cute outfit in front of the mirror, even if there is no one else around.

Melissa Mohr received a Ph.D. in English Literature from Stanford University, specializing in Medieval and Renaissance literature. Her most recent book is Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. Watch a video about the history of swearing.

The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013 is ‘selfie’. The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is a word, or expression, that has attracted a great deal of interest during the year to date and judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance. Learn more about Word of the Year in our FAQ, on the OUPblog, and on the OxfordWords blog.

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Image credit: (1) Robert Cornelius, self-portrait, 1839. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

*Note: The 1586 self- words are from Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, a heavily-used source text for the OED‘s 1911 editors. It is likely that many of these words will be backdated when the dictionary is revised.

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  1. [...] film. Robert Cornelius made arguably the first selfie in 1839 in the early days of photography. As Melissa Mohr stated: “after 174 years and billions of tries, this has never been improved [...]

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