Friday, January 16, 2015
In Defense of the Word "Selfie"
My friend Kamahl has recently started his own blog (you can find it here) where he discusses journalism as well as words and their use in writing. In his most recent post he notes an article from The Independent newspaper in the UK discussing a project at an American university to bring back old words that have fallen out of use. A noble pursuit I'm sure, but I doubt the English-speaking world really needs “flapdoodle” back.
One needs to have an idea as to why words fall out of use in the first place. Some are really just slang so a product of their time (“groovy”, “daddy-o”, “flapdoodle”), others perhaps because they are long or clumsy to say (c’mon now, “opsimath”? seriously?), and others because there might be a simpler and more efficient word/phrase to say it. I'll go out on a limb and assume that most people would just rather say “walkabout” than “obambulate”. Just because a word is old does not mean it is somehow great and should be brought back.
Case in point, I recall many years ago watching a show and my two housemates asked if it was the finale and I said, “no, it's the penultimate show.” Neither of them knew what the word “penultimate” meant so when I explained it their response was to ask why I didn't just say it was the second-last show. I didn't think that the word penultimate was all that obscure, and I believe in the UK it's still fairly common, but I can see how the word could be falling out of disuse because “second-last” is an easier way to say it.
Which brings me to a word that has come into common use, but which many people malign, selfie.
Actually I think it's a great word. It doesn't really meet any of the conditions I noted above for a word that could become obscure and out of use. It's not really slang as it is describing something that only recently has become a common thing. It's a short word, easy to say, and it's straightforward for anyone to understand what it is referring to since it contains “self” in it. Easy to remember, I'm sure after hearing the word once and knowing what it meant you had no trouble remembering it after that. It's also a simpler replacement for how we would have normally described it, a self-portrait. Say these two phrases to yourself and see which sounds better to you:
“I’m going to take a selfie.”
“I'm going to take a self-portrait.”
Selfie seems to better fit the more immediate and whimsical nature of taking a quick photo with your phone. To me “self-portrait” seems far more serious and involved, something that you would do with professional photography or painting.
I agree that not all new words are necessarily great and most of them are just trendy slang that will appear again in 20 to 30 years in sitcoms and movies depicting our time. “Selfie” though I think is here to stay.