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Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013: ‘selfie’

It’s that time of the year again. With a fanfare and a drum roll, it’s time to announce the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. The votes have been counted and verified, and I can exclusively reveal that the winner is….


Illustrations © Barry Hall, cube fish media.
Illustrations © Barry Hall, cube fish media.
A picture can paint a thousand words

The decision was unanimous this year, with little if any argument. This is a little unusual. Normally there will be some good-natured debate as one person might champion their particular choice over someone else’s. But this time, everyone seemed to be in agreement almost from the start. Other words were considered, as you will see from our shortlist, but selfie was the runaway winner. It’s not a new word. For starters, it has already been included in Oxford Dictionaries Online (although not yet in the Oxford English Dictionary), and we wrote about it as part of our occasional Words on the Radar series back in June 2012. But our Word of the Year need not be a new word. However, it does need to demonstrate some kind of prominence over the preceding year or so and selfie certainly fits the bill. It seems like everyone who is anyone has posted a selfie somewhere on the Internet. If it is good enough for the Obamas or The Pope, then it is good enough for Word of the Year.

When it started

But what of the word itself? While it is safe to say that selfie’s star has risen over the last 12 months, it is actually much older than that. Evidence on the Oxford English Corpus shows the word selfie in use by 2003, but further research shows the earliest usage (so far anyway) as far back as 2002. Its use was, fittingly enough, in an online source – an Australian internet forum.

“Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.” (2002 ABC Online (forum posting) 13 Sept.)

The term’s early origins seem to lie in social media and photosharing sites like Flickr and MySpace. But usage of it didn’t become widespread until the second decade of this century and it has only entered really common use in the past year or so. Self-portraits are nothing new — people have been producing them for centuries, with the medium and publication format changing. Oil on canvas gave way to celluloid, which in turn gave way to photographic film and digital media. As the process became snappier (pun intended) so has the name. And now as smartphones have become de rigueur for most, rather than just for techies, the technology has ensured that selfies are both easier to produce and to share, not least by the inclusion of a button which means you don’t need a nearby mirror. It seems likely that this will have contributed at least in part to its increased usage. By 2012, selfie was commonly being used in mainstream media sources and this has been rising ever since.

selfie graph

Early evidence for the term show a variant spelling with a –y ending, but the –ie form is vastly more common today and has become the accepted spelling of the word. It could be argued that the use of the -ie suffix helps to turn an essentially narcissistic enterprise into something rather more endearing. It also provides a tie-in with the word’s seemingly Australian origins, as Australian English has something of a penchant for -ie words — barbie for barbecue, firie for firefighter, tinnie for a can of beer, to name just three.

Other body parts are available

Its linguistic productivity is already being seen by the creation of a number of related terms, showcasing particular parts of the body like helfie (a picture of one’s hair) and belfie (a picture of one’s posterior); a particular activity — welfie (workout selfie) and drelfie (drunken selfie), and even items of furniture — shelfie and bookshelfie. In fact, it seems that the words knows no bounds, although some do seem rather forced, with multiple interpretations, like the apparent delfie (where the d could stand for dad, dog, double, or rather inexplicably dead) or melfie, with the m being explained as Monday, moustache, male, or mum. Whether any of these catch on in the same way is debatable. The multiple meanings may prove a difficult obstacle to overcome. One of the more popular offshoots is legsie, where the photograph is of a person’s outstretched legs, often with a suitably glamorous background visible, although this shows the productivity of the concept, rather than of the word.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

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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