It may be a sign of the self-absorption which characterises our times, that ‘selfie’ - “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website” - has been named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries editors, after the frequency of its usage increased by 17,000 per cent over 2013.
The word was chosen using the Oxford Dictionaries language research programme, which collects around 150 million words of current English in use each month, and can be traced back to a post on an Australian online forum in 2002: “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. ... And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”
The term may even be included in the venerable OED itself if it continues to be popular, says dictionary editor Katherine Martin. “We now know that it has a long history,” she says. Er, that’s actually a history of just about 10 years. But given how short public memory is - not to mention that most people seem to have the attention span of ants - maybe 10 years is really a long time.
The selfie has its own sideline of spinoffs, including ‘helfie’ (hairstyle selfie), ‘welfie’ (workout selfie) and even ‘bookshelfie’ - a snap taken for the purposes of literary self-promotion. (That explains all the Facebook cover images with books in the background...) To that, in our uniquely Indian context, we could perhaps add the ‘pelfie’ - when someone is caught in the act of bribery. Now in the interests of self-protection after the Tarun Tejpal case, maybe we should keep a camera trained on ourselves when we get into an elevator - to catch an ‘elfie’, perhaps.
Other words, other worlds
When we saw the word ‘fracking’ in the Oxford annals, we thought the venerable repository of language was sounding increasingly like Urban Dictionary - which of course is our go-to reference for all things edgy and even unwise. But, although fracking sounds like some form of ragging - on Facebook, perhaps? - it is actually the very prosaic method of injecting fluid into rock at high pressure to extract oil or gas. Ah sigh, there goes our fanciful imagination. But wait, now Oxford even lists ‘derp’ - the epitome of nerd dimness - and it won’t be long before ‘YOLO’ features there, complete with #hashtag, possibly. ‘Srsly’!
Last year’s word of the year was a fun one - ‘omnishambles’, which is what most political parties resemble. Sometimes non-political parties too! We’ll have to wait for the post-New Year’s party pictures to find out. The new one on the horizon is ‘bio-break’. We thought it meant a lunchtime tryst with an organically-grown vegan microgreens salad - but apparently a bio-break, Urban Dictionary tells us, is “neo-geek terminology for visiting the bathroom, especially when interrupting a meeting/gathering/workflow”. (Now we have to go look up neo-geek.)
We sometimes keep an eye on the spelling bees held internationally, particularly in the US. Not just to count the number of Indian names among the winners (and then to speculate whether they are related to so-and-so family of the same name) but also to gawp at the seemingly made-up words which, even more amazingly, the kids get right.
This year one that tickled our fancy was ‘oleacranon’ - it’s the clinical term for the funny bone and one wonders if the writers of anatomical dictionaries couldn’t have found a more imprecise word. That was one from 2013’s Scripps National Spelling Bee held in the US, an edge-of-the-seat contest which threw up other eye-popping tongue-twisters. ‘Galere’ sounds like something that our politicians love to play to - but it’s actually supposed to be a group of people having a marked common quality or relationship, and in the case of Parliament we know what that is.
Then there was ‘cabotinage’, which is defined as “behaviour befitting a second-rate actor”. Pity we didn’t come across it during l’affair Tejpal - given his penchant for florid prose, this one suits him just fine! If you think that all this cribbing is too much - well, there’s a word to describe us. It’s ‘smellfungus’, which sounds terrible but is marginally less so. It means a critic or faultfinder, and is taken from a novel by 18th-century absurdist Laurence Sterne. Predictably, perhaps, it was spelled correctly by none other than a desi - 12-year-old Gokul Venkatachalam.
The year’s buzzwords
Every year is notable for certain words that gain in popularity, regardless of whether they are included in a dictionary or not, and 2013 had its share. In the food department was the cronut - a cross between a croissant and a doughnut, for which people rushed frenziedly like they did in 2000 for the McDonald’s Hello Kitty in Singapore. With virtual reality slowly taking over life, the bitcoin - virtual currency that buys real stuff - is the name of the deal. Bitcoins can be bought and sold... and hoarded, but you have to be careful your storage disk doesn’t get wiped out.
A little-heard one is Cis, which gained some currency in 2013. In the universe of alternate genders and sexuality, it connotes the gender one was born to and identifies with. Short for cisgender, it is an antonym of transgender. Probably the best known word - or symbol - to gain in usage over the year was the hashtag (#). It became a way of not only tagging in social media posts, but also indicating mood and context - such as #nofilter to indicate that a photograph has been uploaded without being adjusted, touched up or modified. Or #makingadifference for a good cause.