A brief history of the selfie.
In what has become a seasonal tradition, the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary have selected their word of the year, and in a nod to techno-vanity “selfie” takes home the Oxie. In the middle of his rambling 11 minute acceptance speech, Selfie was played off by Bill Conti and the OED Orchestra, but not before snapping a couple of quick duck faces with presenter Anne Hathaway.
The OED’s selection is the preamble to another seasonal tradition: complaining about dictionaries destroying English with their maverick word additions. “Where at am I supposed to tell people to go to when they aren’t talking right?” said an anonymous source that I just made up. “Them dictionaries are ruining the American language.”
This is a common misunderstanding. Dictionaries do not dictate what words are acceptable; rather, they simply report usage. In other words, if I can get enough people dropping ‘flombagel’ into casual conversation (“The whole thing was an absolute flombagel”), dictionary editors eventually will report how this mysterious new word is being used, how it is most commonly spelled (no umlaut) and pronounced, and where it originated.
Speaking of which, “selfie” is not an Americanism. According to Henry Chu in a recent Los Angeles Times article, the word of the year is an Australian coinage that first appeared in 2002, when a drunken Internet forum user wrote, “….sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”
What’s most fascinating about that bit of trivia isn’t that eleven years passed before the word earned formal recognition, but rather that thousands of years passed before the word was coined. Selfies have been with us from the beginning, after all, as the following examples demonstrate:
From there things get pretty predictable: Louis Daguerre’s close ups of his pantaloons, Fitzgerald and Zelda blitzed at the Jersey shore, that kind of thing. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Selfies, both as a phenomenon and a word in common usage, are everywhere these days. The whole thing is a flombagel.
cover photo Stewart Black / Flickr
cave painting photo Marie Brizard / Flickr
all other photos public domain / Wikimedia Commons