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My Selfie, My Self

As I said last week, the current leading candidate for the American Dialect Society’s choice of Word of the Year 2013 is surely “Obamacare,” a word whose very utterance (or avoidance) influences public attitudes toward the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Can’t argue with that. But I have a personal preference, a word that has come into its prime this year as a perfect expression of the actions and preoccupations of today’s youth, the so-called millennial generation. You can see the millennials as they see themselves with this word: “selfie.”

What’s a selfie? For the benefit of older generations to whom the term is not self-evident, Oxford Dictionaries Online provides this sober definition, added just a month or two ago:

“informal: a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”

True as far as it goes, but that only hints at its significance. The selfie reflects the millennials’ immersion in technology and social media, their lives sometimes lived more comfortably online than in person, their concern about presenting themselves properly to friends and the world.

Self-portraits have existed forever, of course, but selfies are relatively new. The word itself seems to be not quite a decade old. And selfies didn’t really acquire their current meaning until a certain technological development was accomplished: the iPhone 4, introduced by Steve Jobs in 2010. To the camera on the back of earlier models, the iPhone 4 added a camera in front, allowing users to hold out their phones and check their poses on the screen before taking a picture. Other smartphones followed that lead.

The technology of social media too was needed, of course, making it ever easier not only to take pictures of the self but also to send them. Facebook has been the dominant medium for selfies, but now there’s Twitter and Instragram and Snapchat too, among others. For millennials, it was the conjunction of technology with desire.

You can pose yourself in different ways for different effects. Your selfie can be a close-up of your face or a not-so-close-up of your body. You can pose yourself good-looking, well dressed, or not much dressed at all. You can make a face—a kissy face or a duck face, as well as a smile or a frown. You can take a selfie of yourself with someone else. And you can have someone else take a selfie of yourself holding your camera and making a selfie of yourself. Google “selfie” on Google Images and you’ll see the possibilities.

Here’s why selfie is such a perfect word. It’s transparently about the self. It’s selfish, but the diminutive suffix –ie makes it cute selfish instead of mean selfish. And it is quite literally a self expression, in both senses of that term. Picture perfect, no?

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