Selfies Evolve Into Usies

Selfies have become inescapable over the last few months, and with their ubiquity has come variations concerning among others farmers and bottoms.

Now, the recent trend for selfies involving groups of people has spawned its own word. Usies (pronounced uss-ees) has been coined for the images which have been becoming increasingly prevalent since the famous Ellen DeGeneres shot of Hollywood royalty at the Oscars earlier this year.

Ellen DeGeners' famous Oscar photo
Ellen DeGeneres’ famous Oscar photo

The word was first used last year but is only now coming into consciousness and wasn’t really known when the Oscars took place. However the growing number of shared selfies now means that the need for the word is greater, hence its eventual emergence into more regular usage.

“Usies are a growing trend that I think have far more social value than selfies,” said Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

I actually think Professor Strahilevitz has a point. When I was writing about selfie being named word of the year last year, I was slightly despondent as I felt it described a slightly fractured and narcisstic society, obsessed with self at the cost of community.

While self-promotion is still at the heart of the usie, it is more about the people you are pictured with, the group rather than the individual. Is society moving towards greater unity and community again, rather than an obsession with self? The emergence of a new word is clearly flimsy evidence on which to base such an assertion, but if society does feel more cohesive and joined up in a couple of years’ time, it might be interesting to look back and see whether this linguistic trend really did mark a turning point.

Countdown to a New Era

Let’s get one thing straight immediately. I am a huge fan of Countdown. I have been watching it on and off since its debut on Channel 4 in 1982, and though I seldom catch it now, I still like to test myself when I get the chance.

I appeared on the show in 1986, and still have regrets all these years later. A combination of an excellent opponent and the arrogance of my over-confident youth conspired to send me spinning to defeat in a contest I led twice. I still get shivers when I hear the word Spearhead, the conundrum which finally ended my challenge. I know I let myself down at the end. Rather than sitting there smiling warmly, happy just to have taken part, my expression was a bewildering mixture of sulking and fury over the fact that I had actually lost. Not exactly what the tea-time audience expects and something which in hindsight I should have handled somewhat better.

But no matter. The reason for this diversion into my personal Countdown hell is because Dictionary Corner has moved with the times, and from now on, the validity of words will no longer be checked using a printed volume. Instead, Susie Dent and her assorted helpers will use Oxford Dictionaries Online to see whether the words put forward by contestants should be allowed to stand.

I warmly welcome this move. It means that rather than relying on a book, which by the nature of language is out of date while it is still on the printing press, contestants will now be able to offer words which are current and used and accepted by Oxford’s lexicographical powers. So expect to see Selfie put forward on the show pretty soon.

While there will doubtless be complaints, and the linguistic luddites among us will decry this as further evidence of the death of the English language, we should ignore their complaints. As I have said many times, language is a living, breathing entity, owned by its users, and if its users have deemed that a word is now part of the language, well how can Countdown beg to differ.

This move might actually help to sell that message. The growth and evolution of the dictionary is not necessarily something that a lot of people think about. By making the changing nature of language central to a popular programme like Countdown, it will increase awareness of how language develops and evolves and how vital it is that those changes are tracked and recorded. If this move helps to reinforce that message, then Countdown will have done a great deal more than just offer an entertaining diversion of an afternoon.

#weareallmonkeys #newpartofspeech

New word production seems a bit thin on the ground so far this year. We’re nearly a third of the way through 2014, and I find that the annals of Wordability seem to have less to report on than normal.

But one area that is as fertile as ever is Twitter, and in particular reminders that it has spawned an entirely new type of word.

I refer of course to the hashtag, which is both a word and yet not a word. Originally an easy way to search for content, the hashtag has evolved into something which in time might come to be recognised as a new part of speech altogether. By taking a short sentence and sticking it together with no spaces, a new term is formed as a way of summing up the sentiment expressed in the tweet which precedes it. The hashtag becomes a commentary, or maybe a contextual aside to give more depth to what has been said. In a medium where 140 characters are king and each character has to count, these hashtags have come to be a way to express far more than the tweet allowance normally permits.

I found myself thinking about this following this week’s incident involving Barcelona footballer Dani Alves and a racist taunt from the crowd. His brilliant riposte at having a banana thrown at him was to pick up the offending fruit and take a bite, before continuing with the game.

Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez
Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez

But what was more magnificent still was the social media reaction. Many notable footballers took to Twitter to post photographs of themselves eating bananas, and the banana habit swiftly became a viral phenomenon. But rather than new term such as Tebowing coming to the fore, at least not so far, the tweets all came with a hashtag of solidarity, namely #weareallmonkeys.

So what does the use of this hashtag tell us about language? Well firstly, it’s a bit like a badge, you in effect wear it on your tweet to show that you support the cause. Secondly, it’s a great example of words run together to create a meaning above and beyond that which is expressed in the original sentence which spawned it. If you had to define this example, you’d end up with something which nods to support for Alves’ action, is a general support for anti-racism work and also articulates the point that humans are all derived from the same source and that those who fail to understand this really should learn to. Not bad for four words strung together.

But finally we need to consider its status as a new word. It’s clearly not a word that will have a long life and end up in the Oxford English Dictionary. But in the language of Twitter, it is a new word, and it is used to mean all of the the things I have suggested whenever anybody appends it to their tweet. In this context, it has all the attributes of being a new word, though not in the conventional sense.

It is clear that as technology changes the way we communicate so the words that we use will change to keep pace. But what is becoming increasingly apparent is that the structure and formation of language itself is going to start to change, with new rules, new formations, and as hashtags suggest to us, new parts of speech. Or as they say on Twitter, #theenglishlanguageisalwayschanging.

Selfies Hit Rock Bottom With Belfies

I had hoped never to write about selfies again. They already feel so last year, notwithstanding the emergence of their farming offspring felfie. But there is an increasing trend for one more type of selfie, so I felt duty bound to record it in the annals of Wordability.

Basically, celebrities have been taking photos of their bottoms and posting them on social media. Belfies, as they have become known, first appeared at the end of 2013, but are being written about now in increasing numbers, with luminaries such as Ireland Baldwin, Pascal Craymer and Lucy Watson (no, I’ve never heard of any of them either) eager to get in on the act.

The derivation of Belfie is pretty straightforward – Bum and Selfie combined into a hilarious whole. But without wishing to be pedantic (not true), this formation is inaccurate. A Selfie is a photo taken of yourself, by yourself. Having looked at some Belfies, for research purposes only you understand, it seems to be anatomically impossible for most of these bottoms to have been photographed by the people to whom they belong. The only person I can think of with arms long enough to actually take a proper Belfie is Mr Tickle, and given the absence of orange blobs appearing in the Belfie annals, it seems he hasn’t succumbed yet.

So while Belfie might be around for some time to come, spend a moment realising that the word itself should not be defined as a photo taken by yourself of your own bottom. All that you could really photograph with normal arms might be encapsulated with a much more graphic word, which coincidentally ends up being a very useful term for describing people who put these images out on social media.

Felfies – The New Breed on the Farm

The linguistic flexibility of the word Selfie seemingly knows no bounds. Not content with being a word of the year, Selfie is now showing itself as flexible and changeable, with multiple variations being coined to describe the seemingly infinite variations of self-portrait that are now emerging.

The first alternatives focused on different parts of the body being pictured, with Legsie being mooted as one specific example which was taking off. The latest evolution is derived from those taking the pictures themselves, and the one that has attracted significant attention is self-portraits taken by farmers, otherwise known as Felfies.

The home for Felfies is the Farmingselfies website, set up by farmer William Wilson as a way of putting a face to the many farmers whose hard and isolated lives feed so many people round the world. It’s unlikely he envisioned the attention that his move would bring. But social media loves a picture of an animal, and as farmers started to submit their snaps of them together with the other inhabitants of their farms, so the concept and the term Felfie itself began to grow and trend.

From a linguistic point of view, I have to wonder whether the never-ending spread of selfies means an increasing number of variants for the English-language to contend with. If other professions jump on the bandwagon, will they spawn their own versions? Will bakers be taking Belfies and shelf-stackers snapping Shelfies before too long? And pity the poor sailors, who cannot claim Selfies as their own.

Selfie recently topped the Lake Superior State University annual list of banished words. It is fair to see that if these alternative versions continue to emerge, a whole gamut of Selfie progeny could be topping the list in 12 months’ time.

Geeks Inherit The Earth

I’ve always wondered a little why Oxford Dictionaries unveils its word of the year in November, when there is still quite a bit of the year left to run. But now I can see the advantage of going first. You become the word of the year by which all other words of the year are judged, and you also ensure that other esteemed language bodies have to choose something else.

I think that since Selfie was unveiled as the Oxford choice, it has become established in people’s minds as the definitive word of the year, a status of course helped by Barack Obama et al. Nevertheless, further nominations have followed, and the latest two are interesting in different ways.

Collins dictionary has gone with Geek. I think this choice has been made for reasons more to do with the English language itself, rather than as a reflection of what society has been doing for the last 12 months. The main reason behind Geek’s prominence in Collins’ eyes is that its definition has now been radically changed over the last 12 months. No longer a pejorative term which almost demeans those to whom it is applied, it is now defined as “a person who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject”. The addition of further terms such as Geekery and Geekdom simply sealed the deal.

It’s interesting reasoning but I wonder whether geek really has completely shaken off its past. The people I know in technology still describe themselves geeks in a tongue in cheek, slightly embarrassed way, rather than in a way that seems to wear it like a badge of honour. And in much the same way that Swedish nerds campaigned for a similar redefinition last year, I feel that this kind of alteration loses something of the genuine meaning of the word.

Dictionary.com has taken an alternative approach, going for a word that is neither new nor altered during the year, but has instead summed up the overriding themes 0f 2013. That choice is Privacy, and in an interesting analysis it cites Edward Snowden and Google among others that have contributed to privacy’s prevalence over the year.

If you are going down this route for your selections, then I think this one fits the bill pretty well as it certainly focuses on issues that have been strongly in people’s minds during 2013. I think it is certainly a more suitable choice than Merriam-Webster’s recent selection of Science.

So we now have Selfie, Bitcoin, Science, Geek and Privacy all rejoicing as words of the year. And Phubbing of course. I still prefer that above all others.

The Scientific Approach

There are many ways to choose a word of the year. Merriam-Webster, the leading dictionary in the United States, opts for a scientific approach. It sees which word word has increased its look-ups in its online dictionary the most over the year, and simply gives it to that one. Ironically, this approach has yielded the word it deserves this year. The scientific methodology means that its word of the year is Science.

Its true that science has been in the news more this year than many others, with fresh space exploration on Mars, spectacular meteors and comets and the search for the Higgs Boson particle all issues which entertained the public and the media during 2013. “It is a word that is connected to broad cultural dichotomies: observation and intuition, evidence and tradition,” said Peter Sokolowski, Editor-at-Large at Merriam-Webster.

For me, the problem with taking this approach to choosing a word of the year is that it ignores the gut instinct part, the human analysis that says while a word may be getting people’s attention more than it has in recent years, that doesn’t make it the word that sums up the year. Look-ups of science rose 176% this year to win it the prize. If the word Mugwump had been looked up 50 times last year and 200 times this year, it would have had a greater increase but would certainly not have been a suitable candidate for this accolade.

Writers around the world have had fun comparing the choice of Science with the Oxford Dictionary choice of Selfie, But Selfie says something about 2013 in a way that I don’t think Science really does. We will look back on this year as one where science came more the forefront of people’s minds than previously, but it wasn’t the subject that defined the year. All of which means that you need more than a scientific approach when it comes to deciding on the word of the year.

Phubbing All Over The World

Choosing a word of the year for 2013 has been tough. When August started, there was absolutely nothing obvious. But that situation was just about to change.

When it comes to making the decision, words which are heavily searched for will always feature highly in my thinking, because that demonstrates an interest and usage by people in the English-speaking word.

But for me, a word of the year also has to say something about the year, be a commentary on the way society has been over the last 12 months. Last year I chose a range of words, with Eastwooding, Mother Flame and Ineptocracy providing a commentary on politics, the Olympics and the modern flowering of new terms.

I’m not sure that when historians look back on 2013, there will be an easy way to encapsulate it. Austerity and political strife have continued, but much the same as before. The major scandals, well they were really carried over from last year. Big sporting events, not really. I think Oxford Dictionaries had a similar issue when they chose their word of the year. Selfie was a good choice, because as well as its increasing usage in 2013, it also suggests a fracturing of society, that actually the thing that binds people together this year and describes the year is an obsession with self, and making sure everybody then knows about me, me, me. Social media binds us together, but is perhaps making us more isolated and individualistic.

And that is also behind my choice of Word of the Year. Phubbing first came to my attention in August. Reported as the brainchild of an Australian student, Phubbing suddenly started appearing everywhere. The word, a blend of Phone and Snubbing, describes the act of engaging with your mobile device rather than the person you are standing next to, real, physical social interaction replaced by virtual interaction with someone or something that isn’t really there. It struck me at the time as a brilliant word, fulfilling a semantic need and speaking accurately of a truly modern mode of behaviour. It summed up much of what defines 2013.

The truth behind the creation of Phubbing simply sealed the deal for me. It turned out that this was not a student initiative, it was actually a carefully crafted guerrilla marketing by a Melbourne agency, designed to sell dictionaries. They even released a video showing how a group of language experts had come together in 2012 to create the word and then try and seed it online to get it to take off. For me, this tale confirms everything I have always said about how the nature of language evolution has changed. Forget the fact it was created and consciously marketed – if the word hadn’t been any good and hadn’t been necessary, it couldn’t have taken off. But the way that it did, the fact that it is consistently searched for and read about on Wordability, the way it has just slipped into normal vocabulary, especially in my household, simply affirms that it is the word of the year.

Phubbing All Over The World

Phubbing also provides the backdrop to this year’s book of words. Following the publication of Eastwooding With the Mother Flame last year, I am delighted to announce the arrival of Phubbing All Over The World: The Words of 2013, which is available now as both an e-book and a paperback from Amazon.

Selfie Wins Oxford Vote

When Selfie was included in Oxford Dictionaries Online earlier this year, I commented that I had been looking for a good reason to write about a word that was clearly gaining in usage and was pleased to have an excuse.

Well its status has now been cemented after Oxford Dictionaries announced it as its word of the year for 2013. Although coined in 2002, with the first usage cited in Australia, it is only in the last 12 months that selfies have really made it into the mainstream, with people’s phone-taken self-portraits really forcing their way into public consciousness and national newspapers. Oxford noted that usage of selfie has risen 17,000% over the last 12 months.

Other words on the shortlist included some others featured on Wordability during 2013, including virtual currency Bitcoin; Showrooming, the practice of looking at goods in a store before buying them online; Olinguito, a newly discovered mammal; and Twerk, the dance craze beloved of all tabloids and a word that I am delighted was not chosen for this linguistic accolade. The other shortlisted words were Schmeat, for synthetic meat; Binge-watching, the habit of watching multiple episodes of a single TV show in one sitting; and the always controversial Bedroom Tax.

I think it has been a hard year for choosing a word of the year. Oxford’s choice of Omnishambles last year and Squeezed Middle the year before really summed up society as a whole at that time and gave a keen insight into the state of the nation. This year it has proved harder to find a word that really encapsulates the country’s mood. Perhaps the choice of Selfie suggests that society itself is not as coherent as it was 12 months ago and we are more fractured and individualistic, obsessed with ourselves at the expense of others. In that sense, Selfie perhaps sums up some of the isolation of modern life. Or it may just be a British thing. Dutch experts have chosen Participatiesamenleving – participation society, a society where people take control of their own lives, as the Dutch word of the year.

I have been pondering the word of the year myself and will reveal Wordability‘s choice next week. At this stage, I am happy to reveal it is not Selfie. I will also be revealing details of a brand new book of the year to follow last year’s Eastwooding with the Mother Flame: The Words of 2012, which remains available on Amazon.

Exclusive: New Words on Oxford Radar

The recent coverage of the inclusion of Twerking in Oxford Dictionaries’ latest online update showed just how much people genuinely care about the state of English and the words that we use.

But lexicography moves on, and the guardians of the Oxford lists are already looking at what the next new words to be included might be.

In an exclusive interview, Wordability spoke to Fiona McPherson, Senior Editor, Oxford Dictionaries, who revealed some of the words which are currently being tracked by lexicographers and which may be the ones which feature prominently in updates of the future. You can watch the full interview here:

So to summarise, the words she selected are:

Bacne – basically, acne on your back

Hatewatch – an old Wordability favourite, first identified last year. The practice of watching something you really don’t like, and chatting to your friends about it while hating it.

Dosant – a cross between a doughnut and a croissant

Legsie – hot on the heels of Selfie’s recent inclusion, a photograph you take of your own legs. One can only imagine where this will end, but politeness means I will decline to suggest it

Appisode – an online episode of a television show

Phubbing – one of the great new words of this year, a personal favourite and one which has already entered everyday use in my household. Phone snubbing, using your smartphone when you are supposed to be talking to someone else

Nocialising – See above

Meme – not a new word, but a new sense, as Meme, a cultural idea which passes from person to person, now starts to become a verb

Lolarious – LOL branches out into its own verb. Not sure what David Cameron’s version would become.

So that’s the latest list – now we sit back and wait to see which of them finally makes it all the way through the selection process.