‘Selfie’ beats ‘twerk’ to become word of the year

Snapped: Meryl Streep poses for a selfie with Hillary Clinton © Getty Images

Linguists at Oxford Dictionaries have chosen ‘selfie’ as their word of the year for 2013, citing a 17,000% increase in its popularity. Why are we so obsessed with taking photos of ourselves?

Every year, the lexicographers responsible for updating the Oxford English Dictionary choose one new word that they think captures the spirit of the moment. This year’s contenders included ‘schmeat’ (artificial meat), ‘twerk’ (a dance move notoriously performed by Miley Cyrus) and ‘Bitcoin’ (a unit of currency used mainly on the dark web).

But one word stood out. The official word of 2013 is ‘selfie’, described by the dictionary as: noun; a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam, and uploaded to a social media website.

People have been taking photos of themselves for decades, and painting self portraits for centuries before that, but the modern selfie only really took off with the arrival of digital photography and the smartphone. The first recorded use of the word ‘selfie’ was in 2002. Ten years later, most smartphones now have reversed cameras designed for selfie fanatics, who can now take and upload a photo of themselves from anywhere with the touch of a button.

Today, the selfie has evolved into an art, with a jargon of its own. There are heated debates over the merits of different selfie poses – ‘duck face’ versus ‘sparrow face’. Selfie photographers know exactly which angles look best. The camera should be held a little above the eyeline, face in quarter profile, with the arm kept carefully out of shot.

And it is not just teenage Facebook addicts taking selfies. Many pop stars are habitual selfie takers, posting informal photos directly to their millions of followers. Cameras have followed stars where ordinary paparazzi can never go: Rihanna recently posted a selfie of herself in the bath.

Astronaut Aki Hoshide did even better. His selfie, which recently went viral, shows him floating outside the International Space Station. Meanwhile, Meryl Streep was spotted taking a selfie with Hillary Clinton; a group of Italian teenagers achieved the most unlikely selfie taken so far, snapping a picture of themselves with Pope Francis.

Selfie obsession

Selfies are powerful tools. A skilled selfie taker can construct a powerful narrative around their life: selfies from somewhere glamorous; selfies with someone famous; selfies showing off new clothes, holiday tans or practised pouts. Taking selfies is like having a visual diary which doubles as your own personal propaganda channel.

The popularity of selfies shows how useful they can be – but technophobes still have their doubts. The trend for taking selfies can seem to encourage a damaging sort of technological narcissism. People are so focused on themselves – on how they look and how they will appear online – that they forget to engage with the real world.

You Decide

  1. If you could take a selfie anywhere or with anyone in the world, what would you choose?
  2. Do people’s selfies paint an accurate portrait of the way they live?

Activities

  1. What would your word of the year be? In groups, brainstorm a shortlist of words that are most relevant to your life in the last year. They can be real or made up. Which words got the most votes?
  2. Think about the ways you try to communicate what sort of person you are. Make a list of ways in which you shape your ‘narrative’, and how much it matters. Do you include selfies?

Some People Say...

“People today are all obsessed with themselves.”

What do you think?

Q & A

It’s ridiculous to get all worked up about selfies!
Perhaps. But not all selfies are harmless fun. Some can be very damaging.
Is this about to become a lecture on ‘sexting’?
It may sound boring, but this stuff matters. People still don’t properly understand that once an image is online, it is there forever. Once a photo has started circulating, there is no legal or technological way to get it taken down.
What about services like Snapchat that delete photos after they are viewed?
You are still vulnerable to people taking screenshots. To be really safe, a good rule is this, from a selfie taker who spoke to the BBC: ‘I'd never post anything I wouldn't want printed and sent to my mum.’

Word Watch

Lexicographers
A lexicographer is someone who studies the ‘lexicon’ of a language, i.e. a language’s words. The most famous lexicographer in English is Samuel Johnson, who compiled a dictionary of English in 1755. Unfortunately for lexicographers, languages change all the time and dictionaries have to be constantly updated. Johnson’s dictionary had 40,000 entries. The latest Oxford English Dictionary has around three quarters of a million.
Dark web
The ‘dark web’ is that part of the internet which is not indexed on search engines. It can only be accessed by people with the right link who are also using the correct anonymising software. Bitcoins are favoured for transactions on the dark web because they are anonymous and untraceable.
Duck face
‘Duck face’ is a notorious pouting expression favoured by selfie takers. Sparrow face is similar, but with the lips slightly parted, and is popular in South Korea.
Narcissism
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a young man who was so vain that he fell in love with his own reflection in a forest pool. Every time he reached out to the beautiful image in the water, the face was obscured by ripples. Eventually, Narcissus died of a broken heart. His name gave us the modern word narcissism, meaning unhealthy vanity or self obsession.

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