What Makes a Selfie a Selfie?

A Blog About Language
April 1 2014 11:22 AM

What Makes a Selfie a Selfie?

ellenselfie
Is this a selfie? A groupie? An ussie?

We typically think of a selfie as a photo taken by and of oneself, whether in a mirror or by holding a camera out at arm’s length, hence the name. But here's a recent anecdote from Language Log suggesting that some people are extending it more figuratively:

In front of the window of a candy store in Peebles, a small town about an hour's drive south of Edinburgh, an elderly American woman approached a gentleman she didn't know and, holding out a cell phone, asked:
"Would you please take a selfie of my friend and I in front of this window?"
She was not aware that she had approached a linguist.
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Lest you think it's only older people who are using selfie to mean something like "photo of the camera-owner, probably to be posted on social media," here's an example from Tumblr (for ease of viewing, I’ve put the caption on the picture instead of as a tag).

renaissance_selfie
Well, that depends on what your definition of a selfie is, now, doesn't it?

So a selfie doesn't have to be a photographic, social media version of a self-portrait: Henry VIII, after all, wasn't an artist like Van Gogh painting himself and he definitely wasn’t on Facebook. Rather, he was the one who commissioned the painting, just as the tourist asked the linguist to take a picture of her.

This Atlantic article points out that it's not even clear that a selfie must only contain the self: the Ellen selfie has some dozen people in it and wasn't technically taken by Ellen, although it was at her request. And Ellen is hardly atypical in grabbing a few friends to join her in a shot or handing the phone over to a participant with slightly longer arms (although granted, we're not all friends with Bradley Cooper and Meryl Streep). Coinages such as "group selfie," "groupie," and even "ussie" have been suggested for selfies containing multiple people, but even among people who use selfie sticks they haven't caught on.

We can think of the extended meaning of selfie as more like the meaning of autobiography, although in a different medium. Many celebrities hire ghostwriters rather than write their own autobiographies, but an autobiography is still different from a biography because the subject has commissioned the work to be made and has a potentially-considerable amount of influence over how it is presented. And it's also not inconsistent with the spirit of an autobiography to include a description of the friends and family members of the subject. In fact, it would be a pretty strange autobiography that didn't mention a few other people, at least in passing.

The analogy of an autobiography further helps us makes sense of selfie-spinoff coinages such as shelfie (bookshelf) or sealfie (seal), where the subject isn't necessarily in the photo at all (Google introduced Gmail Shelfie today, though keep in mind that it's April Fools' Day). The "self" aspect indicates here that this is something the subject owns or wishes to be identified with, rather like how you could write an autobiographical essay about only a specific portion of your life.

Do you use selfie only in its most limited sense, or in a more extended way? And are there any other extensions or variations of selfie to add to this list?

Gretchen McCulloch is a linguist and the contributing editor of Slate's Lexicon Valley blog. She has a master's in linguistics from McGill University and blogs daily at All Things Linguistic.

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