November 19, 2013

Congratulations, “selfie.” You are the Word of the Year. Oxford Dictionaries, which awarded you the title, defines you as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”

But this isn’t just a word for 2013. This is a word for all time.

In honor of the day, here is a rundown of the selfie through history.

Millions of Years B.C.: Trilobite, trying to get its reflection from a better angle, accidentally falls into lava and preserves itself forever.

Either 6000ish Years Ago At 9 In The Morning Or Millions Of Years, Depending On Your Theology: God creates man in God’s image. This is the first — but not the last — selfie not to live up to the expectations of its creator.

Centuries Ago In Mythology Time: Narcissus composes the perfect selfie by staring into stream until he wilts away into a daffodil.

Lascaux Cavern: Area cave painter painstakingly scratches selfie onto rock wall of cave. “That looks like a duck,” his friend says. “That is my picture face,” the artist replies, indignantly. “I know when I look good.”

15th and 16th Centuries: Leonardo Da Vinci gets in on the selfie movement with this sketch. Michelangelo tries to get in on it as well but is impeded by the fact that, as a sculptor, he primarily works in marble and keeps dropping the chisel on his foot.

17th Century: Rembrandt masters the selfie. Later scholars, leafing through Rembrandt’s elaborate oeuvre of self portraiture, “liked” the images but wondered aloud why Rembrandt never had anyone else around to take these things, like maybe some of those guys from the Night Watch or something. (Here’s Rembrandt mastering the duck face.)

(image via wikimedia commons)
(image via wikimedia commons)

19th Century: Matthew Brady attempts to take some selfies with recently discovered photography equipment but, unable to tell where he is pointing the camera, keeps accidentally taking pictures of the area just over his shoulder and to the left. He passes these off as Innovative Landscapes of Civil War Dead.

19th Century, But In Europe: Vincent Van Gogh paints a lot of innovative selfies. Destroys note to Theo explaining that “this one looks more like a duck because there’s no ear in it ducks don’t have ears.”

20th Century: A combination of Polaroids and timers make selfies available to a wide range of Americans, who still mostly prefer to reserve them for things like Christmas Pictures In Coordinated Sweaters.

Early 21st Century: The addition of cameras to all phones makes photographers out of everyone. I’m sorry, not photographers but people who think they are photographers and keep ruining what you thought was a classy Halloween party by murmuring “Diane Arbus, Eat Your Heart Out” under their breath as they take snaps.

Slightly Later But Still Early 21st Century: The combined trends of Increasing Need to Look Cool For Your Internet Friends and Decreasing Supply Of Real Friends leads to a new golden era of selfie-taking. “Classic photos have been taken of every place on earth,” people reason, sensibly. “But not with me in them! I must change that!”

2013: Selfie awarded Word of the Year.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.