It’s official: Selfies are inevitably, irreversibly not a fad


Meryl Streep takes a selfie with Hillary Clinton in 2012. (Kevin Wolf/AP)

Today Merriam-Webster announced the latest updates to its Collegiate Dictionary, an annual extravaganza wherein the olds decry the downfall of the English language and the youngs wonder what took so long. Behold! Of this year’s 150 additions, at least a dozen “reflect the growing influence technology is having on human endeavor, especially social networking, once done mostly in person.” (Really? When? We hardly recall.) Those include:

catfish n (1612): (second definition) a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes

crowdfunding n (2006): the practice of soliciting financial contributions from a large number of people, especially from the online community

fangirl n (1934): a girl or woman who is an extremely or overly enthusiastic fan of someone or something

gamification n (2010): the process of adding games or gameline elements to something (as a task) so as to encourage participation

hashtag n (2008): a word or phrase preceded by the symbol # that classifies or categorizes the accompanying text, such as a tweet

selfie n (2002): an image of oneself taken by oneself using a digital camera, especially for posting on social networks

social networking n (1998): the creation and maintenance of personal and business relationships, especially online

tweep n (2008): a person who uses the Twitter online message service to send and receive tweets

There are, of course, lots of dictionaries in the world, all of them publishing lists like this pretty regularly. (You’ll recall the Oxford Dictionaries added “selfie” approximately 12 Internet-years ago, in 2013.) But the interesting thing about Merriam-Webster, in particular, is the care the dictionary takes vetting culturally “trendy” words — and its attention to real-time trends as they play out online. Earlier this year, I interviewed Kory Stamper and Peter Sokolowski, both lexicographers at the dictionary, about trends in language, both immediate and long-term. Said Stamper at the time:

Putting a word in requires a little bit more finesse and sprachgefühl. You need to evaluate the evidence to see if it’s met three criteria: substantial use, sustained use, and meaningful use. Is the word used in a fair amount of widely read prose across all subjects and all registers? Has it been in consistent use for a good number of years? Does it, in fact, have a meaning? If so, it’s eligible for entry.

But, as you get at, it’s not always so cut and dried. Lexicography tends to lag behind the language because you need to look at the long view of a word’s use. Lots of new words see enormous use once or twice in a few decades; is that sustained enough? Or a word may be very specialized vocabulary for a long time before being gradually picked up by the general public. When do those gradual adoptions finally enter the lexicon fully? “Because X” and “feels” (as in, “all the feels”) are really common in essays, blogs, and magazines on the Internet, but we tend not to see either construction in printed materials much. So does that mean that “because X” or “feels” has fully entered the lexicon? Maybe, maybe not.

“Because X” and “feels,” notably, did not make this round of updates — but “selfie” and its ilk did. The cultural oracles have spoken: Like it or not, selfies are here to stay.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · May 19, 2014