- Roy Peter Clark: The Oxford English Dictionary has named "selfie" "Word of the Year"
- He says word of year picks can sometimes be derided by word nerds
- He says selfies are fun, like photo booth picture strips; they are like "mini-me" pictures
- Clark: Word captures our culture: technologically forward looking, self-obsessed
I have 711 photos stored on my iPhone, but none of them is a "selfie." That could disqualify me from commenting on the choice of that neologism, coined in 2002, as the Oxford English Dictionaries "Word of the Year." On the other hand, I do own an old two-volume microprint edition of the OED and read it on occasion for pleasure with the use of a magnifying glass. So give me a shot.
The editors at Oxford Dictionaries describe "selfie" as an informal noun and define it as "a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website." They note that frequency of the word has increased in a year by 17,000 percent.
Ammon Shea, who spent a famous year reading the monumental OED from beginning to end, alerts me that words selected for such an honor "arouse a certain skepticism and derision" among many wordinistas. He notes that this honor is the work of the OxfordDictionaries.com. As for the more famous OED, a press release notes that "Selfie is not yet in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), but is currently being considered for future inclusion."
Though I've never taken a selfie, I have made cameo appearances in the cell phone photos of others. I enjoy this experience, especially at book fairs, where an eager reader may seek a souvenir photo with the author. The result can be quite endearing and funny, especially when it exaggerates the gauge of my nostrils, making my schnozz look like a double-barreled shotgun.
Before the cell phone, the best way to get this effect was to drop a quarter into a photo booth at the mall or the arcade. I wonder if there is an American anywhere who has not been pictured on one of those four-photo strips, usually accompanied by a girlfriend or several drunken classmates.
Even in the age of the selfie, these booths have made a comeback, especially at weddings and reunions. At my daughter's wedding, you could slip into the booth with one or more companions, mug for the camera, see yourself on a computer monitor, take a strip home as a memento, and donate a strip to the bride and groom, creating an instant album of happy faces.
In that context, a selfie is a good thing, with that diminutive ending, suggesting the creation of a "little self." Think of the selfie, then, as a virtual "mini-me," what in ancient biology might have been called a "homunculus" -- a tiny pre-formed person that would grow into the big self.
Or maybe there's a dark side to this moon. Maybe the connotation of selfie should be selfish: self-absorbed, narcissistic, the center of our own universe, a hall of mirrors in which each reflection is our own.
It would fit the times, of course, an era in which selfies decorate the narratives of our social networks. Here I am at my reunion! Look at me with Mickey Mouse!! Check out my new boob job!!! It's me, my selfie, and I.
In the past, it took some kind of human connection, or tricky photography, to capture your self-image. "Excuse me, sir, can you please take our picture?" It happened to me last week outside the National Theater in Washington. Three young women wanted to pose in front of a poster of musical theater star Idina Menzel.
So the Word-of-the-Year brainiacs probably got it right. I can't think of any other word that so captures our confusing and contradictory culture, so technologically forward looking and so personally self-obsessed.
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