Tuesday 24th November 8:00 am
A brief history of the selfie
Tuesday 12th August 2014 1:08 pm
We Australians are pretty easy to recognise by our language — especially the way that we shorten words and then shove a vowel on the end. So ‘fire officer’ becomes ‘firie’, tradesperson becomes ‘tradie’, and a tin of beer gets called a ‘tinnie’.
So lend me your ‘earie’, and I’ll tell you the story of how ‘self photograph’ became ‘selfie’.
Yep, we Australians brought this new word into the English language — and I had a small part in this process.
Possibly the earliest painted selfie was by Parmigianino back in 1523 when he created Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror.
We think that the earliest photographic selfie was taken by Robert Cornelius in 1839, in Philadelphia. He was an amateur chemist and photographer. He put the film in the camera, removed the lens cap, sat back and remained perfectly still for one minute, and then reached forward and replaced the lens cap. He then had to process the film with chemicals and dry it, before he could look at the first photographic selfie. This is a world away from the instantaneous photography we have today.
Since then we’ve had selfies sent back to Earth from Mars by the two rovers still exploring there — our first robot selfies.
For a brief while, the most famous selfie was the one taken at the memorial service of Nelson Mandela, one of the truly inspirational figures of the 20th century. This group selfie had just three people in it — the Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the President of the United States, Barack Obama. But then Hollywood got involved.
The selfie orchestrated by Ellen DeGeneres at the Oscars in February 2014 is now probably the best-known selfie. She started off with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts — and then was joined by Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Spacey and more. You know they have to be movie stars, because otherwise they wouldn’t be thin enough to fit into the one picture.
But in the study of language, called etymology, the origin of a new word is defined by when it first appeared in print. In the old days, that meant paper, but times have changed.
The word ‘selfie’ was born back in 2002, with Nathan Hope, hereafter known as Hopey — so you know he’s Australian. He went out for a mate’s 21st birthday — and had a little accident.
On 13 September, at 2:55 pm, he went onto an online forum (as Hopey) to ask about the dissolvable stitches that were now in his lower lip. They were dry and uncomfortable. After a bit of chat back and forth, the entity known as ‘My Evil Twin, Beryl’ asked him how he came to get these stitches, and at 3.19pm, he typed in reply:
“Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer (sic) and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip.”
He then posted a ‘self-photograph’ showing the stitches in his lower lip.
And then he continued writing, and posted, the very first written use of the word ‘selfie’, in any medium (paper or electronic).
“And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”
That’s how the word ‘selfie’ got into the English language. Its use grew slowly at first, but then took off. In November 2013, it was declared that over the previous year, the usage of ‘selfie’ had increased by an astonishing 17,000 per cent.
Who said so? The OED — or Oxford English Dictionary — which by the way is THE definitive record of our rapidly evolving English language.
How did the OED measure this? Well, the OED analysed the Oxford English Corpus, which is an archive of electronically stored structured set of texts. Each month some 150 million words are collected. This database is statistically analysed every day to track new and emerging words – and ‘selfie’ won.
So, in November 2013, the OED declared that for 2013, the word of the year would be ‘selfie’.
And what forum did “Hopey” post the first-known use of ‘selfie’? It was my very own Dr Karl Self-Serve Science Forum on the ABC.
And yes, I did Tweet about that …
This blog first appeared on Dr Karl's Great Moments in Science
© 2017 Karl S. Kruszelnicki Pty Ltd