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    Selfies Esteemed: How a Word Becomes Word of the Year

    Written by

    Victoria Turk

    Editor, UK

    Image via Flickr/Paul Vladuchick

    This week, Oxford Dictionaries editors named “selfie” their 2013 Word of the Year. It stole the spotlight from such linguistic gems as “twerk,” “bitcoin,” “schmeat” (that meat scientists made from stem cells earlier this year) and “olinguito” (a cute new species of carnivore discovered a few months ago) to gain this year’s coveted title with unanimous support from the Oxford Dictionaries team.

    In our increasingly Instagrammed world, it’s not particularly surprising that “selfie” made the cut. Indeed, sometimes it seems you can’t escape the word, or indeed the phenomenon it denotes. But while the selection of Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year is subjective to an extent, they don’t just pull buzzwords out of the air. The lexicographers are constantly monitoring language usage, and they take this data into account when deciding which one word is somehow emblematic of the past 12 months. 

    By their data, “selfie”—which they define as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media”—saw a 17,000 increase in usage over the past year. That sounded pretty phenomenal to me, so I put in a call to Katherine Martin, Head of US Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, to find out more about how she and her colleagues track word usage, and how “selfie” elbowed its way so suddenly into our everyday vocab.

    To follow new and emerging words, the researchers start with something called the Oxford Dictionaries New Monitor Corpus, a programme that collects some 150 million words in use every month by scanning new web content. In addition to tracking how often a word is used, it analyzes how it’s being employed—in what context, register, and so on. “Because it focuses on a lot of very new content and a lot of web content, it has more of the novel coinages, but we also have a huge, two-billion word corpus that we use for more general investigations into how English is used,” Martin explained. 

    A graph showing the frequency in usage of "selfie," in billions. Image via Oxford Dictionaries.

    She agreed that selfie’s 17,000 percent increase initially seemed pretty steep. “When I saw that at first, I thought that can’t be true,” she said. But then she realised that, put another way, it meant usage had gone up 170-fold—“which is still a very huge increase, but doesn’t seem quite so insanely large.”

    They measured this by comparing instances of “selfie” usage in October 2012 to that captured in 2013, and it seems that usage is still on the up. “That’s why we thought it was kind of the breakout year,” said Martin. “This is a word that’s been around for a decade, but it’s suddenly become a mainstream word. That’s something that happens a lot. To take another word that everyone’s been talking about this year, “twerk,” that goes back to the 1990s, but there’s barely a whisper of evidence for it until the past couple of years.”

    The first recorded usage of “selfie” the researchers found was on an Australian web forum back in September 2002, where someone posted a self-portrait of their busted lip with the insightful comment, “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.” The Register tracked down the not-particularly-glamorous picture here using the Wayback Machine.

    Martin suggested that the term's apparent Australian roots could be evident in its lexical particulars, as Australian slang often includes words with -ie endings, like “tinnie” for a can of beer or “firie” for a fireman. Oxford Dictionaries recognises “selfy” as an alternative spelling, but that’s nowhere near as common as its -ie form, which, if you hadn’t noticed, is pretty ubiquitous these days in hashtags, tweets, and texts. 

    "It’s being used everywhere,” said Martin, who first came across it herself when Hilary Clinton jumped on the selfie bandwagon. “It’s an informal word, it’s not being used un-self-consciously in more intellectual newspapers—unless they’re talking about the phenomenon, they’re probably not going to be saying ‘selfie,’ they’d say ‘self-portrait.’” 

    It’s even traveled across borders, with other languages adopting the English term; Russian, for instance, uses “selfie,” just transliterated into cyrillic. And it’s spawning babies. Oxford Dictionaries picked up such delightful coinages as “legsie” (a self-portrait of your legs), “drelfie” (a drunk selfie), and “shelfie” (a self-portrait with bookcase, apparently). Martin said that’s the mark of a word really taking off: After all, if the initial word wasn’t well known, altered forms of it wouldn’t be understood.

    In short, just like the practice it describes, “selfie” isn’t going to die any time soon. But at least it’s helped bring the all-too-often underappreciated work of lexicographers into the public eye for a brief moment. “The Word of the Year is fun,” said Martin. “We spend our time as lexicographers often doing things like analysing the possible adjectival complements of some particular usage, so it’s nice once a year to step back and look at the year that’s just passed.”

    And in case you're worried you're not doing it right, I'll leave you with this wise example of usage from the Oxford Dictionaries entry for selfie (noun): "Occasional selfies are acceptable, but posting a new picture of yourself every day isn't necessary."