published Thursday, November 28th, 2013

What does our selfie obsession say about us?

Every year, the party animals at Oxford University Press sift through the newest terms to glom onto the ever-changing slime that is the English language and select one as the Word of the Year.

The magic expression doesn’t necessarily have to have originated in the last 12 months, but it does need to see widespread, prominent use. A selection is made for both the U.S. and the U.K.

This year, both sides of the Atlantic went gaga for the word “selfie.” As defined by Oxford — for the six people who never talk to anyone or go online — a selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically … with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social-media site.”

According to Oxford, the first use of selfie was in a post to an Australian online forum in 2002. In 2013, its use increased a staggering 17,000 percent over last year, earning it Word of the Year honors on both sides of the pond.

Oxford seeks in its Word of the Year selections to not only highlight the phrase people are using the most but also the one that best reflects the general mood of the year, like a kind of linguistic zeitgeist.

So what does our selfie obsession say about us?

The knee-jerk reaction is that we’re a bunch of narcissists, and there’s probably some truth to that, but if so, we’ve been that way for centuries. After all, some of history’s greatest artists — Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso — famously produced canvas selfies. In Philadelphia in 1839, Robert Cornelius sat in front of a lens for 30 seconds and made what some say was the first photographic self-portrait.

Personally, I think selfies are rooted in our awareness of our own mortality and our desire to somehow preserve a record of ourselves. A picture might be worth 1,000 words, but a selfie is really saying only two: I exist(ed).

Even with medical advances, we can only expect to live for a century, at the most, but 500 years later, we can still visit a museum or go online and see da Vinci’s self-portrait. If selfies are more numerous now, it’s simply because technology has made it easier for us to take them. In 1975, Kodak made the first digital camera, and if it hadn’t weighed 9 pounds and required 23 seconds to save an image, someone undoubtedly would have held it out, arm extended, and snapped a selfie.

It certainly makes you think, which is more than can be said if Oxford had gone with the runner-up: twerk.

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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