Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Selfie's Children: The Productive "-fie" Suffix

To many, the selfie — a picture of yourself, taken by yourself and shared on social media — is a sign of rampant narcissism. I tend to share that belief. Even before I heard the word, which debuted in 2002 in an Australian discussion forum, I thought there was something mentally amiss with my Facebook friends who posted over a hundred head shots of themselves. I suspected some of them might be Batman villains (Self-Absorbo?) or perhaps the reincarnation of Narcissus himself. Or Geraldo.

However, as a lexicographer, I have to admit the selfie trend is now broader than the self. Just as the words apocalypse, fantastic, and tornado spawned the suffixes -pocalypse, -tastic, and -nado, selfie has launched a suffix into the English language: -fie. Thanks to our ever-changing language, you can now take twofies, threefies, dogfies, and even shelfies. Improbably, the selfie contains multitudes.

The proliferation of this suffix is a side-effect of selfie's prominence in 2013. Oxford Dictionaries named selfie Word of the Year, while it was a runner-up at the recent American Dialect Society meeting that gave the 2013 lexical crown to because. But ADS had more to say about selfies, as -fie came in third place for Most Productive, trailing two extremely promiscuous suffixes: ­shaming and -splaining. Like -shaming and -splaining, -fie produces many words, but they're used differently: since -fie words refer to photos, variations can be found more often in hashtags than sentences. There's not much "This is a legfie," but there's a lot of "#legfie."

A selfie, in its purest form, is a picture of one person: yourself. But since many people like to take pictures of themselves with other folks, math has broadened the trend. A picture taken with one friend — often your bestie — is called a twofie. Here's an array of twofies on Tumblr. There are also threefies, fourfies, fivefies, and sixfies. In theory, this trend could spiral on into infinity — or to whatever is the maximum number of people who can fit in one photo. If you don't feel like counting, just call it a grelfie (group selfie).

Many uses of this suffix, naturally, involve parts of a person. Got a new haircut? Take a helfie. Want to show off your new manicure? Take a nailfie. Have nice gams? Take a legfie. Are you a politician looking to ruin your career? A crotchfie should do the trick. If your gym routine has paid dividends in the buttockial region, you might want to take a buttfie, which is also known as a belfie or bumfie. If you stick out your tongue during a selfie, that's a tonguefie. There are also boobfies, toefies, and eyefies. The amount of possible variations is probably limitless, given the large number of parts of the body and the larger amount of slang terms for those parts.

Other -fie words feature critters, places, and things. Here's a smorgasbord of catfies. Due to allergies, I'm more of a dogfie man. The employed take workfies; gym rats take gymfies or welfies (workout selfies). At the end (or the beginning) of a long day, an Instragram-lover might take a bedfie. Proud hat-wearers take hatfies, while enjoyers of a popular alcoholic beverage take beerfies, which could also be considered drelfies (drunk selfies). And the recent winter weather has produced snowfies.

The drudgery of farming might seem far removed from the world of selfies, but that's just not so. As Kate Knibbs puts it in Time, "The agriculturally inclined are no less susceptible to vanity shots." Thus, the felfie: a farmer's selfie. As Knibbs notes, felfie also means a foot selfie. Perhaps the double felfie will someday be coined: a selfie of a farmer's foot (one that hasn't been stuck in manure or caught in a tractor, let's hope).

As those examples demonstrate, -fie can be combined in a few ways with other roots, as shown by the two different words for a foot selfie. Felfie is basically a word blend, borrowing just the first letter from foot. Footfie is a root plus a suffix, which makes the meaning clearer to newbies. Either way, -fie mainly produces words that are only two syllables. Perhaps this is a constraint that will lessen as the suffix becomes more established, but so far, I can't find examples of sevenfies or eyebrowfies.

This word trend may seem dumb, and I'm not arguing, but in at least one case, this new suffix is being used to show off something more substantial than a face or haircut. I'm talking about shelfies: pictures of a bookshelf that show off your prized tomes. Book-focused Twitter accounts use the word in contests, as in: "Tweet @RobCox85 a picture of your best 'shelfie' with #panmacshelfie and you could kick off 2014 with these beauties." Lesley Barnes sums up the appeal: "I have decided for all of you that 'selfies' are dead ...it's all about the 'shelfie' !! let's see what's on your shelf!" It's nice to know selfies can promote literacy as well as vanity and oddities such as the Selfie Olympics.

Finally, if you're still not convinced this trend can swim out of the shallow pool of self-promotion, consider some words I've seen coined by a few writers, including this tweeter: "What's a selfie when another person takes it? A friendie? An otherie? Sounds dangerous."

We could all use more friendies, and I believe it was Jesus who said, "Put your otheries before your selfies."


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Monday January 13th, 7:48 AM
Comment by: Anne S. (Oakton, VA)
Clever and amusing!
Wednesday January 15th, 9:22 PM
Comment by: Julian Williams - Artist (Narberth West Wales United Kingdom)
There is an interesting dynamic going on here: On the one hand young people are becoming more self absorbed and materialistic, on the other they are melting their identities within an extended peer group identity. Have you noticed that many no longer use a capital I when writing about themselves, preferring to write "i like .....". At first glance these trends look contradictory, however perhaps it is realistic since the personal "I" always was a product of the culture in which our personal identities happened to develop.

The new development also brings parity between "you" and "i".

At the same time as the young are dropping the capital I, and merging their identities into some sort of peer group identity, they are dropping using their surnames. Their group identity seem to be less family-centric

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