In the end, it wasn’t even close. As energetically as Miley Cyrus may have “twerked” at the MTV Video Music Awards to boost its standing in the popularity sweepstakes, the lure of the personal seems to have trumped the appeal of the overtly sexual. In a unanimous decision, the doyennes of the English language over at Oxford Dictionaries chose “selfie” as their word of the year. Selfie joins previous winners “omnishambles” and “squeezed middle” in the lexical hall of fame, consigning “binge-watch” and “showrooming” to linguistic oblivion.
The word of the year’s stated objective is to identify additions to our vocabulary influenced by popular culture, sport, politics and other current affairs. Given the dominant narrative surrounding the so-called Millennial generation—those self-obsessed, entitled individuals born between the early 1980s and 2000s—“selfie” captures the zeitgeist perfectly. This Generation Me has been maligned for its narcissism and technological prowess, and the selfie is its ultimate emblem: a word and concept that may have originated with drunken Australian shenanigans in 2002, but only found full expression with smartphones properly in the mix a decade on. Like the doomed figure from Greek mythology, millennials cannot stop gazing at their own reflection.
Or can they? The medium may be new, but the message is age-old. Self-portraits have been around a long time and one might even say they have religious sanction—after all, isn’t god said to have created man in his image? It’s certainly not the last selfie to disappoint its creator; it’s just that the impulse to capture a facsimile of oneself has found easier outlets. Freed of the imperative to view one’s likeness in a mirror while painting, an aspiring self-portaitist can actually be doing things, unlike, for instance, Vincent Van Gogh, who appears to be staring at himself sardonically in most of his self-portraits. A selfie is about the image we want to project to the world outside, yes, but in so doing, it reflects our conscious self-regard, deepening the picture we paint of ourselves.