Social media term gains Oxford recognition

By Dylan Frost


“Selfie,” a word describing a contemporary self-portrait, is Oxford Dictionaries’ newly crowned Word of the Year.

As defined by Oxford – the largest English language dictionary – selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”


The earliest known usage of selfie dates back to Sept. 13, 2002 when it was used in an Australian forum.

“Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped [over] 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.”

So one man’s night of intoxicated gaffes became an entire generation’s term for self-portrait.

The Word of the Year must be relevant in a 12-month period, and it reflects the mood or preoccupations of the current year and its potential to stand the test of time in a cultural world. Being named Word of the Year does not necessarily guarantee the word a place in the print edition of the dictionary; however, the award does give it visibility and an online definition.

Ever since selfie received the honor on Nov. 19, the decision has been met with a mix of acceptance and contempt. Selfie’s recent cultural relevance is represented by the nearly 60 million tags received on Instagram and the innumerable tags posted daily on Twitter. Critics think selfies represent a narcissist plea for attention when users post pictures of themselves frequently.

Oxford’s director of publicity, Christian Purdy, said Oxford should be regarded as a “descriptive” dictionary. They add words based on the evolution and usage of words in the English language.

“We are not proscriptive in any way, shape or manner in saying these are legitimate and proper words to be used in this way or that,” Purdy said. “Being a descriptive dictionary means it is all about usage. Smart phones and social media have contributed to a new vocabulary that meets some resistance when these words are added to the dictionaries.”


Purdy said language mavens are passionate about words being added to the dictionary and will often find reasons to complain about certain words being published.

However, Oxford’s decision-making process is more scientific than subjective. An Oxford research program collects nearly 150 million words each month and identifies the trend of popular words being used daily.

“Language research conducted by Oxford Dictionaries editors reveals that the frequency of the word selfie in the English language has increased by 17,000 percent since this time last year,” according to the dictionary’s website.

New Monitor Corpus is the sophisticated program that uses automated search software to scan web content. The program considers frequency and geological location of where popular words are being used.

Oxford Dictionaries editors also identify words based on what they read and hear in conversations. A team of lexicographers (someone who compilies dictionaries), consultants, editors, marketers and publicity specialists has the final say in determining the Word of the Year.

Recent trends suggest technology, and the omnipresence of social media. influence the spawn of new words. The evolution of cellphones as mobile Internet devices, the increased number of people with camera phones, tags on social media sites, and mainstream media bringing attention to trendy words.

Previous Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year winners are “podcast,” “unfriend” and “GIF;” all of which are correlated to an online culture. The acronyms “LOL” and “OMG” have also been recognized in recent years.

Purdy said there is more at play than technology.

“Science, economics, politics and pop culture each bring a wealth of new words and uses to our language each day,” he said.

According to Purdy, some other words up for consideration to be added into the dictionary include: “sharknado,” “catfishing,” “Thanksgivukkah,” “Obamacare,” and “frankenburger” among others.

As the world evolves culturally – and as younger generations communicate with each other influence new trends – words tend to take on new meanings or lose their initially meanings completely. George Boulukos, a professor of English, gave examples of words that took on new meanings throughout time.

“The word ‘jazz’ would be a good example,” Boulukos said. “Apparently it was originally a slang term for sexual intercourse (as a verb), but it evolved and is now the name of an increasing respectable form of music (as a noun).”

Boulukos, who specializes in 18th-century British literature, said the word “novel” once had dangerous connotations before taking on a scholarly meaning.

“Novels themselves were seen as dangerous, corrupt entertainment, especially for young women,” he said. “Now the word is a very serious word for professors and critics to throw around.”

Official spellings and definitions of words weren’t established until the English writer, Samuel Johnson, edited the first respected dictionary in 1758. The monumental publication of “A Dictionary of the English Language” gave words authenticity and paved the way for Noah Webster to publish an American version in 1828.

Having esteemed dictionaries is why Boulukos says that slang words – like “selfie,” “LOL,” and “tweet” – are controversial.

“Seeing dictionaries as ‘official’ and monumental in this way is what makes it controversial when a dictionary adopts a new, slangy word like ‘selfie,’” he said. “We are likely to want to look up new or slangy words we don’t yet understand.”

However, Boulukos has no problem with dictionary companies adding slang words; although he said it is obviously a publicity move by the publishers.

“I have no problem with ‘official’ dictionaries taking up ‘new’ words and trying to give reliable definitions for them,” he said “If it is fun and gets people to think more about the words they use, I suppose it is a good thing.”

Dylan Frost can be reached at 

[email protected] 

or 536-3311 ext. 254.