An Australian university student was hardly angling for global fame as a wordsmith when he took a boozy nosedive during a friend’s birthday bash 11 years ago. But the word he coined for the self-taken snapshot documenting the result of his fall has today won the crown as the Oxford Dictionaries international word of the year for 2013.
That word is “selfie,” and Oxford defines it as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”
That’s exactly what the Australian university student did in September 2002. While recovering from his hospital visit, he pointed a phone camera at the wounded bottom half of his face and took a picture. Then he logged in to Australia’s ABC forum under the username “Hopey” and uploaded it for the world to see.
“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,” he said in a now famous post. “I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”
And that, according to the Oxford Dictionaries’ announcement, marked the word’s earliest recorded usage. The real person behind “Hopey” has yet to claim the limelight, and Australian media have already launched a search for him.
The term was slow to take off, the Oxford Dictionaries said. It popped up again on an Australian personal blog in 2003, then flickered in and out of discussions on social media sites like Flikr and MySpace. And then its usage shot through the stratosphere, rising by 17,000 percent in 2013 as it came to define cultural phenomena, from political scandals to debates about the modern era’s egotistical obsession with self-image.
This made selfie the “runaway winner” for 2013, Oxford Dictionaries’ statement said:
The decision was unanimous this year, with little if any argument. This is a little unusual. Normally there will be some good-natured debate as one person might champion their particular choice over someone else’s. But this time, everyone seemed to be in agreement almost from the start.
Our Word of the Year need not be a new word. However, it does need to demonstrate some kind of prominence over the preceding year or so and selfie certainly fits the bill. It seems like everyone who is anyone has posted a selfie somewhere on the Internet. If it is good enough for the Obamas or The Pope, then it is good enough for Word of the Year.
The recognition of the word’s Australian origins was front and center in the official imprimatur. “The earliest evidence that we know of at the moment is Australian,” dictionary editor Katherine Martin told the Guardian. “And it fits in with a tendency in Australian English to make cute, slangy words with that 'ie' ending.”
In that way, the word calls to mind other Australian diminutives such as “tinnie” for a can of beer, “barbie” for barbeque, and “firie” for a firefighter.
There's also now a slew of linguistic spinoffs from the ubiquitous term itself. Just a few mentioned by Oxford are “helfie” (a snapshot of one’s hair), “belfie” (a photo of one’s behind), “welfie” (a gym workout shot) and even a “drelfie” (a drunken selfie).
The word’s fame has yet to translate into inclusion in the definitive Oxford English Dictionary, though it’s under consideration, writes the BBC. But it was welcomed into the common-usage Oxford online dictionary this August alongside other top performers that included “badassery,” “buzzworthy,” and “twerk.”
Not everyone is celebrating the term’s victory, however. As one fan of this year’s second most famous entry lamented on Time.com, “twerk was robbed!”