Blog Excerpts

How "Selfie" Was Born in Australia (And Took Over the World)

Oxford Dictionaries has named selfie its Word of the Year, bringing a great deal of attention to the trendy word. As it turns out, this social-media-friendly term for a photograph of oneself first cropped up in Australia, where the "-ie" ending is often used to form new words.

Selfie has been on the uptick for the past few years (Ben Zimmer recognized it as one of the notable words of 2012). The lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries first recognized selfie last August, when they included it in their quarterly update of new words. No one paid much attention to selfie at the time, since the newsworthy word in the quarterly update was twerk. Just days earlier, Miley Cyrus had infamously twerked in a performance at MTV's Video Music Awards. (See "Oxford's 'Twerk': The Perfect Lexicographical Storm?")

After Oxford Dictionaries announced the inclusion of selfie, Hugo van Kemenade, a frequent contributor to the American Dialect Society mailing list, set about finding the earliest example that he could. He posted his discovery on Aug. 28 (and also added it to the Wiktionary entry):

The earliest I found is in ABC Online Forum (Dr. Karl's Self-Service Science), 13 September 2002:

From: Hopey ® 13/09/2002 15:19:29
Subject: re: Dissolvable stitches post id: 169902
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.

Here's the selfie.

Katherine Martin, head of US dictionaries at Oxford University Press, discussed the term's Australian provenance in an interview with The Guardian:

It seems almost certain the selfie originated in Australia with a young drunk first using the word to describe a self-portrait photograph more than a decade ago.

Oxford Dictionaries revealed this week the earliest known usage is from a 2002 online ABC forum post.

The next recorded usage is also from Australia with the term appearing on a personal blog in 2003.

"It seems likely that it may have originated in the Australian context," dictionary editor Katherine Martin said.

"The earliest evidence that we know of at the moment is Australian and it fits in with a tendency in Australian English to make cute, slangy words with that 'ie' ending."

There's barbie for barbecue, firie (or firey) for firefighter and tinnie for a can of beer.

How a local Australian term exploded into worldwide prominence isn't exactly clear, but there is no question that the past year has seen an enormous rise in the popularity of selfie. An Oxford Dictionaries blog post explains:

The term’s early origins seem to lie in social media and photosharing sites like Flickr and MySpace. But usage of it didn’t become widespread until the second decade of this century and it has only entered really common use in the past year or so. Self-portraits are nothing new – people have been producing them for centuries, with the medium and publication format changing. Oil on canvas gave way to celluloid, which in turn gave way to photographic film and digital media. As the process became snappier (pun intended) so has the name. And now as smartphones have become de rigueur for most, rather than just for techies, the technology has ensured that selfies are both easier to produce and to share, not least by the inclusion of a button which means you don’t need a nearby mirror. It seems likely that this will have contributed at least in part to its increased usage. By 2012, selfie was commonly being used in mainstream media sources and this has been rising ever since.

A graph shows the stunning increase in frequency of selfie in the Oxford English Corpus over 2013:

unit= freq./billion words

For more, check out the infographic about selfie on the Oxford Dictionaries blog.

Update: Australia's ABC News has tracked down Nathan Hope, aka "Hopey," the author of the 2002 forum post. In an interview, Hope says, "It was not a word I coined. It's something that was just common slang at the time, used to describe a picture of yourself. Fairly simple." See the interview here, and read Ben Zimmer's reflections on the media frenzy on Slate's Lexicon Valley blog here.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday November 20th 2013, 8:46 AM
Comment by: Craig S.
Super share today folks. It shows a living breathing language and provides a great entry to share with students.
Saturday November 30th 2013, 2:55 AM
Comment by: flowwolf (Germany)
Shouldn't it be 'Miley Cyrus had infamousLY twerked in a performance at MTV's Video Music Awards'? Or have I missed some grammar change?

[Indeed. Fixed! —Ed.]

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