Word of the Year: selfie

Oxford Dictionaries has named “selfie” Word of the Year (WOTY). You can see their announcement and the other contenders on their short-list here. To qualify it needs to be a word that attracted attention in 2013, so it was likely to be a relative neologism (although its first recorded use is 2002). Because it’s a newish word I imagine nearly any choice would have attracted criticism. While I’ve used it, I’m not personally a huge fan of ‘selfie’. However, I think it’s a useful word: there are a lot of self-taken photos on social media and so a word to describe them is needed. It’s obviously thought to be useful by many or else its increase in use by 17,000% over the last year wouldn’t have happened!

The WOTY is picked on its ‘lasting potential as a word of cultural significance’. Does selfie really have lasting potential? While social media is still incredibly popular, its constant change means words that words that were popular can fall out of use very quickly. Looking at the previous WOTY lists, the 2005 and 2009 American winners (podcast and unfriend) are also both technology related and are both still in use so maybe there is hope for the longevity of selfie?

The word is formed by combining ‘self’ with the ‘ie’ suffix. The ‘ie’ is a variant of ‘y’ and is used to form diminutive nouns and pet names. It’s a class maintaining derivation, so self (noun) becomes selfie (also a noun). A suggestion is that making it a diminutive by adding ‘-ie’ might soften narcissistic connotations to make it seem more cute. I’d suggest that a selfie – from the use of ‘self’ – can also help people take back control of their own outward identities (something well suited to social media), rather than being narcissist, but that’s a rambling for another day.

Interestingly as well as likely beginning in Australia, selfie it was named WOTY in both the UK and US Oxford Dictionaries, showing the reach of ‘selfie’ across English dialects. Its importance can be seen in its linguistic productivity, such as the formation of ‘bookshelfie’, which I talked about in August. Do I still think it shouldn’t be word of the year? I don’t know. I might not like the ‘sound’ of it, but it’s clearly of linguistic importance at the moment.


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