“SELFIE” MAKES THE OED: rambling thoughts on self-portraits

Finally, the Oxford English Dictionary has given recognition to a word used in our family for years now. The OED’s online version made “selfie” its Word of the Year for 2013.

Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide took this selfie from space in 2013

Well, it’s about time. Selfies have circled the world a billion times in this past decade. In the information age that’s close to ancient news. The popular word for mobile phone camera self-portraits was introduced years ago to this troglodyte by his teenage daughter who is a selfie aficionado.

I love that the OED is keeping up with words born of the Internet. It is my go-to dictionary when I really what to get the goods on a word.  Each entry is extensive, including the first recorded occurrence of the word and subsequent examples of how the usage changed over time. That’s a boon for any word nerd.

Though the word selfie is fairly new as far as language goes, the camera self-portrait is as old as the portable camera. Following the invention of the Kodak Brownie box camera in 1900, people have snapped photos of themselves in every conceivable pose. An English Edwardian lady and Russian Duchesses are seen in this Wikipedia article. I can even remember one of my aunts with a Poloroid Instamatic camera shooting photos of herself and laughing hysterically. She had a wonderful sense of humor and drama. She was always fun to be with because she laughed all the time and didn’t take herself too seriously. Had she lived into the cell phone era I think she would have produced great selfies.

The Grand Duchess of Russia, Anastasia Nikolaevna, is shown here taking perhaps the first teenage selfie using a mirror and a Kodak Brownie camera.

OED tracked the first use of the word selfie to an Australian online forum in 2002 . A man described his drunken fall and picture of subsequent dental injuries. “Um, drunk at a mate’s 21st. I tripped ofer (sic) and landed lip first …on  a set of steps…sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”  In 2004 the word appeared as a hashtag on Flickr. In 2005, Photographer Jim Krause used the word in his book, Photo Idea Index. The word became widespread in the mainstream media by 2012. According to an OED infographic, selfie won the competition by growing in usage 17,000 percent this year alone.

Selfie beat out “twerk,” the word referring to the attention grabbing fad of gyrating like mating dogs in public. The term’s familiarity shot up after being made infamous this year by the young entertainer Miley Cyrus. Shirking and deliberately stripping off her sweet 16 teen image, Cyrus has done her part, as so many pop diva’s do, to dumb down the love-making dance symbols of western culture. She’s got nothing on the Tango.

The popular word selfie was introduced years ago to this troglodyte by my teenage daughter. I call her the Selfie Master, though she is typical among her peers who create selfies at the drop of a hat. There are workout selfies or “welfie,”  hair selfie or “helfie” and shelf, sweater and shirt all getting the moniker of shelfie. Her cell and mine are populated with hundreds of these selfies. They are expressions of ongoing exploration of her emotional life: sadness, elation, depression, delight, anger and humor, anxiety and seduction. Some are sent out in texts, others are archived as the stock photos ever ready to help illustrate a future mood. I wouldn’t delete any of these images because they are much like a child’s early drawings and school crafts that reveal snapshots of her developing self-image.

My daughter's bathroom selfie from a few years ago. It's all about exploring a pose.

My daughter’s bathroom selfie from a few years ago. It’s all about exploring a pose.

The selfie is a variation of artists’ self portraits. Who can forget Warhol’s blank face in various colors or the dozens of haunting Van Gogh mugs. Today every person under 30 is a photo artist with enough self portraits to fill a couple dozen photo albums, (though few keep hard copy photos any more). I wonder how many digital selfies the world’s web hubs and computers can store?

Despite the name, seflies are not only about the self. There are social selfies that show our life in social realm. I’ve made a few family selfies. Here’s one with my family on a day hike.


A selfie of my family on a day hike in the foothills of the Alaska Range near Healy, Alaska

To me selfies are more fun when you are in a group. The spontaneous dynamics of three or more people seem to always be captured by the camera lens, even when the lighting is dim and the hamming meter is way off the charts.