The word of the year makes us look like raging narcissists

This year's word -- "selfie" -- and its predecessors paint a dismal picture of contemporary culture

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published November 20, 2013 4:07PM (EST)


As 2013 heads into its home stretch and the inevitable rounding up and discussing What It All Meant commences, let us remember that this was the year that would be defined by our narcissism. This week, the Oxford Dictionaries declared that its word of the year is "selfie." 

The selfie, that out-of-focus, frequently duck-faced clogger of your Instagram feed, has been around a while. Oxford cites its first known usage as a 2002 Australian online forum posting that reads, "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." Fittingly, this caption can now be applied to roughly 40 prcent of all known selfies in the world. But the selfie itself goes back even further in history, as any art history student who's paid attention to the likes of van Gogh or Rembrandt or Cindy Sherman knows.  But the selfie only officially entered the Oxford dictionary earlier this year, and it's only relatively recently that the selfie has saturated our lives. CNN notes there are "57 million photos bearing its hashtag -- #selfie on Instagram alone," and the Oxford blog provides the staggering statistic that "the frequency of the word selfie in the English language has increased by 17,000% since this time last year." That's a ridiculous amount of duck-face.

And selfies have taken over not just our social media experience but our real world one as well. It's now all but impossible to be at a large gathering or walk anywhere near an even moderately famed landmark without seeing clusters of individuals holding their phones at arms' length while they cock their heads and pout at the screen. This is how we declare ourselves. This is how we say, This is me, world! Having fun! Looking vaguely sexy at Tuzigoot! This is me, having an awesomesauce hair day at grandpa's funeral! 

Taken in context, it's hard to look at Oxford's current and previous choices and not feel a little … lexicographically judged. Its U.S. choice last year was "GIF." Before that it was "squeezed middle." In 2010, Oxford laughingly chose Sarah Palin's nonsense term "refudiate,"  and in 2009 it picked "unfriend." The way Oxford tells it, we Americans sure are one narcissistic, short-attention-spanned, financially strapped, antisocial, quite possibly illiterate lot. And, like an unfortunate Drake hands video, that does not make anybody look good here. Maybe we get the words of the year we deserve. But I'd feel better about us as a nation – or at least as a nation in the eyes of Oxford Dictionaries – if one of the runner-ups had taken the prize instead. Sharknado, you'll always be a winner to me.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Instagram Selfies Word Of The Year