And The Oxford English Dictionary's Word of the Year is . . .

The approaching end of the year always brings upon a slew of the year’s “Bests” and “Tops.”  “Top” lists are more objective, relying on numbers to determine top-grossing films, best-selling books, and most-downloaded songs and albums on
iTunes.  “Best” lists, however, are more subjective, relying on the opinions of bloggers, critics, and fans to determine the year’s successes and failures.  Over the next month or so, I’m sure you will be inundated with such lists in all of your news and social media outlets.  However, I would like to call your attention to another prestigious assessment that doesn’t always get the same recognition: 

The Word of the Year.  Although there are several organizations that choose a Word of the Year (the oldest to do so, in fact, being the American Dialect Society), the Oxford English Dictionary seems to get the most media attention.  Every year, a panel of the prestigious publication’s lexicographers, consultants, and linguists come together to decide which word deserves the coveted title.  Much like Time Magazine’s Person of the Year Award, the decision is both subjective and objective;  it relies on determining how certain words had been illustrative of the cultural, social, and political climate of the past year.  Which words had “trended” the most on Twitter or Facebook?  What one word can be used to summarize the experiences of the average person (with an obvious bias toward English-Speaking Western culture)?  The process of choosing The Word of the Year often involves heated debates, lengthy diatribes, and those on the panel settling into stubborn camps and alliances.  This year, however, the decision was unanimous as all immediately agreed on a single word:

Pronunciation: /ˈsɛlfi/
(also selfy)
noun (plural selfies)
              a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website:
              occasional selfies are acceptable, but posting a new picture of yourself every day isn’t necessary
early 21st century: from self + -ie

Earlier in the year, the Oxford English Dictionary officially added the word “selfie” to the online version of their publication (with the above definition).  With the advent of the Internet, additions and edits to the dictionary can be made instantaneously, evolving at the same pace as the ever-changing language that it strives to represent.  Unlike other dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary (often shortened to simply the OED) offers detailed etymologies and histories in addition to simple definitions, taking up several volumes when printed out, much like a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  For a fascinating read on the history of English lexicography and the tremendous undertaking of creating the OED in a time when standardized dictionaries were virtually nonexistent, check out The Professor and The Madman by Simon Winchester.

Another word that was briefly mentioned as a possibility is “Twerk.”  “Hashtag,” which would have gotten my vote had anyone asked, was evidently the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year for 2012. The infographic on the right, created by the Oxford English Dictionary team and posted on their blog, also lists other distant runners-up.  “Selfie,” however, is the obvious choice for several reasons. 

For one, it is a word that is often uttered in person or on social media (sometimes earnestly, other times ironically or sarcastically, and usually accompanied by a hashtag).  An objective look at the numbers (See the infographic) reveals an obvious trend of the word’s popularity across many platforms.  In a more subjective sense, the word perfectly embodies the increasing self-awareness and self-consciousness that social media creates.  At any given time, with only a tablet, smartphone, or computer, you can take a quick picture of yourself, maybe add a nice filter, and share it with your friends or even the larger Internet community. With a caption and a few well-chosen hashtags, you can instantly share and immortalize your experiences.  Possibly you’re on vacation, and you want the world to see you with the Eiffel Tower in the background on a gorgeous, blue-sky day. Perhaps you’re out at your favorite coffee shop, and you want your friends to drool over the Peppermint Mocha you’re currently enjoying.  Or maybe you’re feeling especially well-dressed getting ready for school, wearing your new riding boots on a quintessentially crisp fall morning.  With the rise of social media, you have the ability to feel closer to your family and friends by making them part of your everyday life whether they live across the street or across an ocean.  Also, the narrative of your life is in your control, told through a series of selfies, captions, links, and statuses.  The right photo or Youtube video can instantly make you famous.

In 1968, Andy Warhol eerily and astutely predicted the impending impact that technological advancements would have on our lives.  He didn’t refer to computers, smartphones, or tablets specifically in his observations.  However, when everyone else saw flying cars and teleportation on our horizon, Warhol (whose own work includes a number of “selfies” and images from pop culture) envisaged the influence that the Internet would have on our social and cultural climate, famously musing:


“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen  minutes.”

At the time, journalists and fans would often question what he meant by this, to the point that he became annoyed, dropping the sentiment altogether.  However, I think we finally know what he meant.


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