By Jonathan Dent
Words are patient things. They need to be: language change is often a slow process, measured, for the most part, in centuries and not months. A new word (a neologism), whether it enters English as a loanword, a borrowing from another language, or whether it is formed within English from pre-existing words and affixes, usually has to wait until a decent interval has elapsed before it settles down and starts a lexical family of its own, becoming the parent (or etymon) to new words for which it provides one of the building blocks.
Occasionally, however, a word arrives on the scene that has no intention of waiting around, and in an age of social media and instant linguistic gratification and dissemination, these cocky newcomers are becoming more common, and Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013, selfie, announced in November last year, is rapidly proving itself to be an unstoppable propagator of new words.
Coming up with the perfect blend
Almost all of these new coinages which base themselves on the word for a photographic self-portrait are ‘blends’ or portmanteau words, formed by replacing the initial ‘s’ of selfie with the opening letter or sound of some word indicating what kind of self-portrait is being shared with the world—what body part is the focus of the image, where it was taken, who (or what) is in the photo as well as the self in question. Back in November, we singled out a few of these new coinages, including melfie (a male-, moustache-, or Monday-selfie), helfie (a hair-selfie), and belfie (a butt- or bottom-selfie).
Few of these derivatives of selfie have made the headlines in their own right, possibly because, as some of the above examples show, attaching an initial letter or two to the body of another word doesn’t provide much information about which first word is intended, once the word is detached from its immediate context. Most of the blended words that have stayed with us in English play on the fact that their two parent words share some sounds in common, like motel or bromance, and therefore convey a clear impression of which two words have been sandwiched together in this way (although there are notable exceptions to this rule, like brunch). It’s no surprise then that the one -elfie word mentioned in the Word of the Year posts which was a true blended word, shelfie, realized some of its obvious ‘hipbrow’ appeal, prompting a flurry of bookshelf ‘portraits’ on social media sites over the festive period.
E, i, e, i, oh . . .
One that we didn’t spot in November, however, was felfie. It was out there, but lying low, characterized by a typical confusion about what kind of selfie it really was. An entry added to urbandictionary.com in April 2013 defined it as ‘a fake selfie’, but it had been around since at least October 2010, when a user on Flickr posted a photograph with the tags ‘#self portrait #face selfie, #felfie? #facie?’ Another photograph tagged #felfie later that year featured its poster modelling a pair of trainers—a foot-selfie. None of these early meanings has attracted any media attention, so it was something of a surprise around the beginning of 2014 when felfie settled down to mean only one thing: the farmer-selfie.
The vogue for farmers taking photographs of themselves at work, preferably with an adorable animal in shot (if you can get it to lick your face or ear, so much the better) seems to have been sparked by a Christmas competition in the Irish Farmers Journal. The subsequent proliferation of selfies taken in muddy fields with bemused or oblivious animal onlookers and their owners has sparked its own twitter hashtag, websites and tumblrs, and a Facebook community page with around 36,000 likes (and counting).
The champions of the felfie, the farmers themselves, see this as a much-needed opportunity (in the words of Will Wilson, curator of farmingselfies.com) ‘to put a face to the farmers who work hard to put food on your table’, while Rob Campbell, writing in the Western Daily Press on 9 January saw the trend as having the potential to connect a scattered farming population with one another, as well as with the outside world:
A felfie is a new way of communicating for the half a million or so of us who work on the three-quarters of our land area which is given over to farming…, the perfect way for those who work outdoors and alone to keep in touch with each other – and, because of social media’s reach, to educate the rest of us as to what it is that actually happens out there in those fields.
Given the media attention in both Ireland, the UK, and as far afield (geddit?) as Canada, where both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers have reported on the craze for felfies, those taking and sharing their farmyard self-portraits seem to be achieving their aims. The popularity of the felfie, though, seems to be at least as much rooted in the seemingly inexhaustible needs of an increasingly urban society, creating its connections and consuming its information about the outside world through the internet and social media, to share, and stare raptly at photographs of the animals we encounter all too rarely in everyday life. While for many, selfie represented the self-regarding, insular tendencies of modern (online) life, the felfie seems to embody a desire to look beyond the screen to the greener world that city dwellers have been yearning for since the days of Hesiod, Theocritus, and Virgil.
Whatever is the secret of their success, felfies are enjoying their moment in the sun, hitching a ride on the coattails of their more famous parent. While Rob Campbell may not get his wish to make felfie the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2014, it’s certainly a good contender for the word of the month.
Jonathan Dent is an Assistant Editor on the Oxford English Dictionary.