Selfie Defence: Word of the Year 2013

December 18, 2013 by admin

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Oxford Dictionaries are in desperate need of a bit of selfie-defence after naming ‘selfie’ its Word of the Year in November 2013.


It was well-publicised last month that Oxford Dictionaries announced that their Word of the Year for 2013 would be ‘selfie’. Up and down the English-speaking world, people exclaimed their discontent that such a monolith of the English language would ignore far more quintessentially English words for something as lowbrow and common as ‘selfie’.


Well, such people haven’t really taken the time to reflect upon the reasons behind this choice. Perhaps if, instead of keeping seflie at arm’s length, they gave some thought to the staggering momentum with which this little word has bulldozed its way into not only the spoken, but the written language too of the entire English-speaking world, they would start to see selfie as more worthy a winner: Lexicographers at the Oxford Dictionaries language research programme have recorded a 17,000% increase in its usage between October 2012 and October 2013.


In fact, selfie has filtered into the national lexicon with such conviction that it has found pride of place in national newspapers, even without the custodial supervision of some guardian inverted commas or a vindicating italic font.


The earliest evidence the OED has found for the use of the word selfie was back in 2002 in an Australian chatroom. Just more proof, as if any were needed, that England has long since lost its dominance over the language it gives its name to. Well, I suppose you can’t expect to invade half the world’s countries and not expect them to send a few invasions back, can you?


Other languages’ desire to avoid the rampant Anglicisation that so often affects the world’s foreign languages has spawned many translations of the word selfie such as the French autoportrait, the Spanish autorretrato and the German Selbstporträt. None of which really have the same ring to it, I think even a non-native English speaker would agree, which is perhaps why selfie itself has been borrowed in many countries instead of these counterparts.


Similarly, people cried out in distress across social media when the OED decided to add a new definition for ‘literally’, to include its prevalent use as an emphasier. Whereas you wouldn’t catch me using it like that unless someone was literally holding a gun to my head, I can hardly vilify the OED for doing its job properly, which is to keep a true and historic and linguistic record of the English language.


Selfie was added to in August 2013 but the decision to add a word to the OED is a more complicated one. The OED is a historical dictionary which means that once a word or meaning has been added, it is never removed. So that’s quite a commitment on their part and they have to be certain that a new word or a new meaning will stand the test of time, otherwise the dictionary would be full of words which only really meant something to an insignificant amount of people in the English language’s already long and complicated history. But, given the explosion of high usage selfie has already shown us, it is surely as strong a contender as any. Some may bemoan this and make unfounded, bold claims that this spells the death of real English, but things change I’m afraid, and nothing quite as quickly as language.




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