‘Selfie’ Is Our Word of the Year: That Happened


ColumnI’m guilty of the occasional selfie. So, I took a new one in honor of 2013’s word of the year—and highlighting one of my favorite words.

The fact that “selfie” is the  2013 Word of the Year doesn’t say good things about how we, collectively, behaved this year.

Selfie. Just look at it sitting there doing nothing and not even being a real word.

As a writer, I admit that I think about words more than the average person. I constantly strive to replace vague words with clear words and wimpy words with strong words because language, when used thoughtfully, is a powerful change agent.

Let’s look at two of my favorite issues for a quick primer: Pro-Life vs. Anti-Choice. Gay Marriage vs. Marriage Equality. We use language every day to pull people over to our side, and to separate ourselves from what we disagree with.

Selfie is static. It’s a photo capturing a staged moment in time. There’s rarely action expected or required on the part of the viewer (aside from maybe clicking “like” or giving it a heart). Unlike the heavily-charged linguistic choices mentioned previously, selfie is a throw-away.

Selfie itself is a structurally wimpy word. Say it out loud and try to sound forceful. It’s impossible and, what’s worse, is that I swear you have to cock your head a little to the side to say it.

You know what’s a powerful word? Cunt. That’s right. It’s so powerful that even Cher stumbled recently and ended up using “c-word” instead of the real thing when describing Sarah Palin. To be fair, Cher was wrong. Palin totally isn’t a cunt. Cunts are powerful and strong. I’d call Palin a twat.

As long as we’re on the topic of words and their origin—and cunts—here’s a little history lesson from Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. “Cuneiform,” the most ancient form of writing, derives from the Sumerian, “kunta” meaning “female genitalia.” At that time, women were likely to be accountants or administrators of Temple of Inanna in Sumeria. So, it is highly likely that cuneiform was “the sign of the kunta” who kept the books. So, a “cunt” is actually a “queen who invented writing and numerals.” Ta da.

Respect to Cher; cunt was definitely the wrong word for Palin.

So why has cunt (which was good enough for Chaucer and Shakespeare) been replaced by the more delicate sounding pussy, hoo-hah or va-jay-jay in polite (such as it is) company? According to linguists, the answer might be less complicated than the reason some words fall out of favor today—see the ongoing attack on the word “vagina.”

On Slate, Forrest Wickman points out that cunt is a blunt, Anglo-Saxon word, and that many of the most taboo words are Anglo-Saxon monosyllables with short vowels. Just think for a second, you’ll come up with a list.

The Oxford Dictionary Online’s choice of selfie as our word of the year reflects our growing interest in personal technology and dicking about on the internet (as did last year’s winner, GIF), but  is also  a reflection of our narcissism. A selfie is a photo we take of ourselves and post online. It’s rare that we don’t look awesome in these photos, just ask Beyonce. The lighting just so. Chin tipped down to avoid fat-face. Bookshelves lined with smart people books or a lovely natural scene providing the backdrop.

Conceptually, the word of the year is light and silly. It’s supposed to be reflective of pop culture; I get it. If that’s the intent, twerk might have been a more apt commentary on 2013—though if I never have to type that word again I win at life.

In a year when people are constantly using language for their own self-interest (Oh, hi, Obamacare, didn’t you used to be the Affordable Care Act?), selfie might just be the perfect choice.

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