By KAT MALLARY ’17
Assistant Arts Editor
Whenever people rail against yet another silly choice for Word of the Year, I can’t help but wonder: what would they have chosen? It can’t be easy coming up with new words, and all the new ones we seem to come up with are, on the whole, undeniably frivolous. But they’re still new words, and their relative silliness hasn’t stopped us from using them.
In fact, the word “selfie” has its own beautiful, underdog-type personal history: its first recorded use comes from this 2002 blog post by a young Australian on ABC forums: “Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer 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.” This was accompanied by, presumably, an appropriately bloody self-portrait.
How could you not love a backstory like that? From undeniably humble beginnings, “selfie” has risen to linguistic heights that classic polysyllabic stunners can only envy. According to research conducted by the Oxford English Dictionary, usage of “selfie” rose 17,000 percent from 2012 to 2013. Over 57 million photos are tagged “selfie” on Instagram alone. There’s a Tumblr blog called “Selfie” that only posts selfies. This will soon be converted into a similarly titled website dedicated to the same purpose.
Selfies are also a time-honored tradition. There have been selfies since Wellesley College was five years old—photographic self-portraits became popular during the 1880s, when self-timing shutters were released.
Almost everyone loves selfies. According to Samsung, 30 percent of selfies are taken by people between the ages of 18 and 24, which means that there are plenty of outliers as well. Selfies can be a hobby for people of all ages.
But, for those still not sold on the choice of a mot nouveau for the big prize, let me present the competitors for the Word of the Year Title. We can begin by uttering a long, collective sigh of relief that the staff of the Oxford Dictionaries didn’t settle on “twerk.” “Twerk,” would be defined by the Oxford Dictionaries as: a dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance. Society’s brief but intense fascination with the dance phenomenon during 2013, while amusing in passing, is not something I’m eager to enshrine on any sort of list.
Also in the top seven was “schmeat.” Do you know what “schmeat” is? It’s a fusion of “sch,” the derogatory prefix, (as in “fancy schmancy”) and “meat,” used to mean laboratory-grown meat cells. There are aspects of “selfie” culture that really do make a statement about 2013. Even “twerking” brought about some very interesting discussions on race and class in American culture. But I really don’t want to think about how “schmeat” defines modern Americans, or their linguistic patterns.
The only runner-up that might have made me question my support for “selfie” was “olinguito,” the name of the only new mammalian species discovered on the North American continent in 35 years. I don’t think olinguitos have had a lot of impact on the evolution of American language or culture over the past year, but there isn’t anything overtly embarrassing about them, and they’re adorable. But, considering that “selfie” actually touches on some important themes for this year—the continued growth of social media and smartphone culture being the main one—we can put insert a picture of an olinguito next to the dictionary entry for “cute” and call it even.
The final option for Word of the Year 2013 was “binge-watch,” as in marathon-viewing all nine seasons of ‘The Office” during a week of midterms. But “binge-watch” isn’t the message we want to send with our Word of the Year. It doesn’t describe the inroads of smartphone culture, the world in which email, texting, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook all exist at our fingertips, and our friends are no further away than whichever form of social media they check most often. “Binge-watch” doesn’t have the same subtle sense of empowerment that “selfie” connotes; with “selfies,” people are suddenly able to exercise complete power over the camera and take as many frames as they’d like, controlling their image and how they are perceived by taking ownership of their digital selves.
“Selfie” seems like a silly choice at first because it’s an impromptu word, presumably conceived by an inebriated young Australian over a decade ago. It brings to mind images of hundreds upon hundreds of young teenage girls pouting their lips, trying to appear just old enough to be legal. But even if “selfie” is a silly word, it’s okay for dictionaries to have fun if their language is, too. We don’t just have words for serious things for a reason. “Selfie” captures the best of both worlds—a trendy new word that we actually use that also speaks to some of the most fundamental changes in our culture.
Read the counterpoint on why “selfie” was a poor choice for Word of the Year here.
Kat Mallary is a first-year from New York City and Vermont currently trying to major in everything. She also rides for the Wellesley Equestrian Team and reads too many books about English grammar.