Words you need to know: “Selfie” is Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013

Selfies were a lot harder to take back in 1900.

Selfies were a lot harder to take back in 1900.

It may not have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary, but the word “selfie” hit Oxford Dictionaries top word of the year spot for 2013. The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is a word or expression that has shown up with growing frequency in the media over the course of a year. The candidates don’t have to be included in the dictionary prior to their selection – though most show up at the OED’s online counterpart, OxfordDictionaries.com. Selected words come out of the Oxford Dictionaries New Monitor Corpus, a research project that collects 150 million English language words a month, using automated software to identify new and emerging words across the Internet. The awarded words – one selected for the U.S. and one for the U.K. – help give a snapshot of what users have been interested in for the year. (So, our language selfie this year is… selfie.)

Origins of selfie

The word selfie – which OxfordDictionaries.com defines as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website” – first started appearing around the web in 2002, spelled “selfy.” Originally posted in an Australian forum, the word didn’t really catch on, although it had some growth as a hashtag on Flickr in 2004. Its growth started developing in 2012, when Twitter and Instagram ran with the term, and celebrities like Beyoncé, James Franco, First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton (who posted a selfie with mom Hillary on Twitter in June 2013) helped popularize the word.

Oxford Dictionaries Editorial Director Judy Pearsall explained a potential reason for the evolution in the word’s spelling to Danika Fears of Today News in “Oxford Dictionaries names ‘selfie’ word of the year.” Pearsall suggested, “The use of the diminutive -ie suffix is notable, as it helps to turn an essentially narcissistic enterprise into something rather more endearing.” The –ie ending, common in Australian English, also helps support the idea that the word originated there.

But selfie is just the starting point for a host of words you probably won’t ever find in the OED. In “Oxford word of the year 2013,” a Huffington Post contributor listed just a few of the alternate versions of selfie that have popped up on the web: “There have also been lots of plays on this word, such as welfie (workout selfie), drelfie (drunken selfie), and even, for you book lovers out there, bookshelfie (shelfie in front of your bookshelves).”

Selfie won out over other competitors because its usage saw a serious uptick: frequency of the word has increased 17,000% since November 2012. Compare that percentage to the shrinking number of Americans who don’t have cell phones – only 9% of the population.

Other contenders

Of course, selfie wasn’t the only candidate for this year’s word. It beat out “twerk” (the sexually provocative dance term that made headlines when it earned inclusion in OxfordDictionaries.com earlier this year – and frequently features alongside Miley Cyrus in articles), “binge-watch” (a trend in watching multiple episodes of a TV show back-to-back, made possible by Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon streaming – or DVDs for the old-fashioned), and “showrooming” (going shopping at a bricks and mortar store, then making your purchase for a lower price at Amazon or another online site). What else hit the list?

  • Bedroom tax, a UK term meaning that the government reduces the housing benefit paid to a claimant if their property has more bedrooms than people living there
  • Bitcoin, “a digital currency in which transactions can be performed without the need for a central bank”
  • Olinguito, a small mammal, related to a raccoon, found in Columbia and Ecuador, whose discovery was announced in 2013 by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
  • Schmeat, synthetically produced meat

And in previous years? If the Word of the Year is a snapshot of what Americans are paying attention to, do any of these seem familiar?

  • 2005: podcast
  • 2006: carbon-neutral
  • 2007: locavore
  • 2008: hypermilling
  • 2009: unfriend
  • 2010: refudiate
  • 2011: squeezed middle
  • 2012: GIF (as a verb)

What do you think should have been the word of the year? Tell us in the comments.

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