From a friend yesterday:

Recently the word “selfie” has been showing up, referring to images taken of oneself, usually with a cell phone.

I was wondering how long it takes for a word such as this to become accepted and recognized by you authorities on words.

Two matters here: the word selfie; and acceptance and recognition by authorities on words.

1. The word and the thing. A selfie is a photographic self-portrait, and such self-portraits have been around since the beginning of photography (mostly as the province of serious photographers, amateur and professional); by analogy to painting and drawing, these photographs were simply called self-portraits. Then two relatively recent developments (dating from early in this century) have made such photographs widespread and popular: cell phones (in almost everybody’s hands) that function as cameras; and social media that provide an outlet for displaying the photographs to a large audience. Somewhere in there, self-portrait was abbreviated to selfie; I know nothing about the details of this development.

And now selfies are being taken seriously as art. From the current Smithsonian magazine (today on the online site), “The National Selfie Portrait Gallery Is a Real Thing, And It’s Art”:

While older generations might moan and groan about “kids these days,” some art galleries are recognizing the culture that is being created as real art. Take the National #Selfie Portrait Gallery for example — an exhibit that’s opening in October at the Moving Image Contemporary Video Art Fair in London. Made up solely of selfies, the gallery attempts to explore how people see themselves.

Animal New York’s Kyle Chayka and Marina Calperina and the masterminds behind the project, and they write:

Self-portraiture has a long artistic heritage, with devotees including Rembrandt, the compulsive self-documentarian, Courbet, who styled himself a suave, long-haired Bohemian, and van Gogh, the fragile genius, bandaged at the ear. Today, the genre belongs to anyone with a camera. Self-portraiture is the most democratic artistic medium available, not merely as a performative outlet for the social self, but also as an intimate route of personal catharsis for today’s artists.

The gallery will include short-form videos created by 16 artists who are exploring the concept of the selfie. There has been a lot written about the value of selfies from a sociological perspective, and now artists are hoping to make the selfie’s role in art clearer, too.

2. Lexicography. Linguists and lexicographers have noted the word. Selfie was in the competition for the American Dialect Society Word of the Year 2012 (but didn’t win).  And then earlier this year it was entered into the Oxford Dictionaries Online site — a sort of waiting room (or watch list) for Oxford English Dictionary entries. Since the practices of talking and posting selfies seem likely to continue, and the word is now firmly associated with those practices, the word has a bright future. It’s not yet in the OED, NOAD, or AHD, but give it a little time.

But in the meantime, selfie is certainly a word of English; it was a word of English from the time people started using it. It will get into dictionaries when it gets into widespread use for a significant period of time. Merely being a word of English isn’t enough: there are vast numbers of words that are very restricted in their use and/or short-lived, and no dictionary could possibly record all of them.

3. Gay bonus. My correspondent reported that on Pinterest you can find large numbers of guys standing in front of bathroom mirrors and showing off, producing often racy selfies. So it is, and googling on “selfie(s)” in combination with “naked” and “guy(s)” will pull up a huge number of images.

2 Responses to “selfie”

  1. Alon Lischinsky Says:

    Somewhere in there, self-portrait was abbreviated to selfie; I know nothing about the details of this development.

    The earliest attestation I’ve been able to find is a 2001 Usenet posting, but the writer does not seem to need to offer an explanation of the meaning, which suggests the term was already current.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    And now:

    ‘Selfie’ named by Oxford Dictionaries as word of 2013 (link)


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