Sunday, December 22, 2013

Fight between Selfie and Science for Title of the Word of the Year 2013

Oxford Dictionaries' word of the year for 2013 definitely captures a snapshot of our social-media-obsessed moment. It is SELFIE.

selfie noun, informal (also selfy; 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.

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While it is safe to say that selfie’s star has risen over the last 12 months, it is actually much older than that. Evidence on the Oxford English Corpus shows the word selfie in use by 2003, but further research shows the earliest usage (so far anyway) as far back as 2002. Its use was, fittingly enough, in an online source – an Australian internet 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. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.” (2002 ABC Online (forum posting) 13 Sept).

The term’s early origins seem to lie in social media and photo sharing sites like Flickr and MySpace. But usage of it didn’t become widespread until the second decade of this century and it has only entered really common use in the past year or so. Self-portraits are nothing new – people have been producing them for centuries, with the medium and publication format changing. Oil on canvas gave way to celluloid, which in turn gave way to photographic film and digital media. As the process became snappier (pun intended) so has the name. And now as smartphones have become de rigueur for most, rather than just for techies, the technology has ensured that selfies are both easier to produce and to share, not least by the inclusion of a button which means you don’t need a nearby mirror. It seems likely that this will have contributed at least in part to its increased usage. By 2012, selfie was commonly being used in mainstream media sources and this has been rising ever since.

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Early evidence for the term show a variant spelling with a –y ending, but the –ie form is vastly more common today and has become the accepted spelling of the word. It could be argued that the use of the -ie suffix helps to turn an essentially narcissistic enterprise into something rather more endearing. It also provides a tie-in with the word’s seemingly Australian origins, as Australian English has something of a penchant for -ie words – barbie for barbecue, firie for firefighter, tinnie for a can of beer, to name just three.

But you would be surprised that even on such arena, there is a strong competition among respectable agencies. As opposed to Oxford decision, Merriam-Webster has declared "science" its 2013 word of the year.

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Oxford's buzzworthy choice of "selfie" last month was a result of the word's growing usage and digital fame. But its U.S. counterpart picked "science" primarily based on numbers on its website. It looked at the most searched-for words on its online dictionary,, and also those that showed the biggest increase in the number of look-ups.

The word with the largest spike? Science. A 176% increase in look-ups, to be exact. "A wide variety of discussions centered on science this year, from climate change to educational policy," the dictionary editors said in a statement. "We saw heated debates about 'phony' science, or whether science held all the answers. It's a topic that has great significance for us."

Merriam-Webster has a history of not getting too carried away by Internet memes.

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