It's been another whirlwind week in the dictionary world. A few months ago, you might recall, Oxford Dictionaries announced that it was adding twerk in its latest quarterly update. The announcement came amid the uproar over Miley Cyrus twerking at MTV’s Video Music Awards, creating what I called a "perfect lexicographical storm." Suddenly, everyone was weighing in on how the inclusion of twerk in a dictionary—from Oxford, no less!—signaled nothing less than the disintegration of the social fabric.
When the news first leaked out earlier this week that Oxford Dictionaries would be selecting selfie as its Word of the Year, my first thought was that it was a reasonably safe pick, and unlikely to generate the firestorm of publicity that we saw during Twerkageddon. After all, Oxford had already announced that selfie was going into its online dictionaries (not the OED!) in the same update that introduced twerk, and there wasn’t much commentary about it at the time.
I also figured that selfie would not attract as much attention as some of Oxford's Word of the Year picks in the past, like when the US dictionary program picked Sarah Palin's refudiate in 2010 or the verb GIF last year. (Full disclosure: I used to be editor for American dictionaries for Oxford University Press and had a hand in selecting earlier Words of the Year, like locavore in 2007.)
As it turned out, I guessed wrong. The selection of selfie was huge international news, generating far more headlines than twerk (a runner-up for Oxford's Word of the Year) ever did. The late-night talk shows had fun with the news, too. Conan O'Brien's joke was typical: "The Oxford Dictionary has named selfie the word of the year, narrowly beating out twerk. In a related story, the funeral for the English language is this Saturday."
But beyond the usual hand-wringing over the fate of the language (and society in general), what made the selfie news especially juicy was Oxford's identification of the earliest known example of the word, in a 2002 science forum post on the website of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In a discussion about dissolvable stitches, a poster calling himself "Hopey" recounted:
Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer 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. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.
The post was accompanied by Hopey's out-of-focus selfie displaying his stitched-up lip.
Credit for the discovery of this post should go to Hugo van Kemenade, a contributor to the American Dialect Society's mailing list. (I’m chair of the society's New Words Committee, and we'll be having our own Word of the Year selection at our annual meeting on Jan. 3.) In late August, after Oxford Dictionaries announced selfie in its quarterly update, van Kemenade set about finding the earliest known example of the word, and his search turned up Hopey's 2002 usage.
It makes sense, of course, that selfie would find early popularity in Australia, where the –ie suffix has long been a source for the formation of slangy nicknames known as hypocoristics (think barbie for barbecue, mozzie for mosquito, and Aussie for Australian). But that doesn’t mean our man Hopey singlehandedly came up with the term after a drunken night out with his Aussie pals.
Undeterred, media outlets seized on the 2002 citation as the original "coinage" of the word. Soon there were entire articles devoted to Hopey—such as The Telegraph's "Australian man 'invented the selfie after drunken night out'"—complete with the gruesome close-up of his lip and the dissolvable stitches.
In Australia, Hopey quickly became a celebrity. Since his post appeared on the ABC's website, it's not surprising that ABC News was the one that tracked the man down and revealed his identity. His name, it turns out, is Nathan Hope—naturally, "Hopey" was formed by the same hypocoristic method that turned self-portrait into selfie. The interview that the ABC conducted with him was a bit anticlimactic, however.
Hope expressed genuine puzzlement that his long-forgotten forum post, complete with misspellings, had become international news, along with the photo of his busted-up lip. And he dispelled the idea that he was somehow responsible for the word. "It was not a word I coined. It's something that was just common slang at the time, used to describe a picture of yourself. Fairly simple."
So Hopey didn't coin selfie, but why would everyone think that he did? There is a common assumption that a word can be traced back to a sole identifiable inventor who forged it in a burst of creativity. While this is sometimes the case (think of Lewis Carroll's chortle, or J.R.R. Tolkien's hobbit), historical lexicographers know that far more often, the best we can do is follow the trail of evidence as far back as it takes us without uncovering an originator.
Furthermore, in this case, it's very likely that there was no single moment when the word was created, no Ur-selfie. Instead, as cellphone photography became commonplace more than a decade ago, numerous Australians probably thought to apply the hypocoristic –ie to make selfie. And it is also a good bet that, as is often the case with slang, the word traveled orally before anyone like Hopey thought to type it out in a forum that could be retrieved online by future word-hunters.
So let this be a cautionary tale. Make that two. First, if you see that the Oxford English Dictionary or some other source has identified the first-known citation of a particular term, don't assume that the citation represents the birth of the word into the world. It may not even represent its entry into print, since so much writing, even in our digital age, remains ephemeral. And second, avoid stairs when intoxicated.