Everyone seems to be taking and posting one. Now more and more people are using the word. And we're talking more about the word (mentioning rather than just using it) since the Oxford Dictionaries announced on November 18 that selfie is their Word of the Year for 2013. Every other story about the word selfie seems to be accompanied by someone's photo of someone taking a selfie.
Word of the Year competitions have become a small media phenomenon: Oxford Dictionaries, BBC, American Dialect Society, New York Times. (Maybe that's a verbal version of a selfie). Candidates for word of the year are usually nominated because they capture something, an idea, a movement, a question, which has substantially occupied people over the past year. Twerk or big data come to mind. But selfie is different in that the word has so quickly become part of everyday speech. Researchers at the Oxford Dictionaries claim that recorded uses of selfie in 2013 rocketed from fewer than 500 instances per billion words used in January to more than 5000 instances per billion in October. And that doesn't even count the number of times people used selfie in everyday talk or accepted it as a "real word" when others used it.
By linguistic standards, this is an incredible peak in word usage, especially for a noun. The most frequently used English words are function words (in, and, to, of) or pronouns. The most commonly used English noun is time. Beneath all this linguistic horserace attention to selfie is something important about how language works as social behaviour.
First, selfie actually restricts its meaning: "A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website" (Oxford Dictionaries). Not just any self-portrait but one created with a digital device. Not any photo stored anywhere but one uploaded to a social media site. Selfie is a distinctive word for the digital, media-obsessed, share-myself-with-the world moment.
And the word's origins may be more local than we think. The earliest confirmed recorded use of selfie is from 2002, in a 20-something's photo and report of a drunken party, posted to an ABC Online forum: "Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps ... And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie."
Odds are the lad wasn't inventing a new word but simply using language he and his mates normally used.
Now, 11 years after that young man's tumble down the stairs, selfie is part of worldwide English speech for a digitised, media-sharing culture.