How Oxford English Dictionary Chooses Its Word of the Year

By Wesley Fenlon

We take a lot of selfies, but we probably talk about selfies even more.

In 2012, it was GIF. In 2009, unfriend. In 2005, podcast. The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year often represents an important or ubiquitous piece of Internet culture, usually at the point it has grown out of Internet slang and into everyday life. Oxford Dictionaries continued that trend this week by unanimously picking "selfie" as the 2013 Word of the Year. Time to get your phone out and snap a pic for Instagram--selfies are officially recognized, now.

This isn't Oxford Dictionaries' way of recognizing selfie as a word for the first time. The word is already in Oxford Dictionaries Online, and got a few days in the spotlight last year in a Words on the Radar feature. The Word of the Year award recognizes that selfie is now a prominent word.

"By [Oxford Dictionaries'] data, 'selfie'—which they define as 'a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media'—saw a 17,000 increase in usage over the past year," writes Vice. Katherine Martin, the head of dictionaries at Oxford University Press, told Vice "this is a word that’s been around for a decade, but it’s suddenly become a mainstream word. That’s something that happens a lot. To take another word that everyone’s been talking about this year, 'twerk,' that goes back to the 1990s, but there’s barely a whisper of evidence for it until the past couple of years.”

Photo credit: Flickr user vladdythephotogeek via Creative Commons.

Oxford Dictionaries traced the first known usage of selfie back to a 2002 Internet post made on an Australian forum:

2002 ABC Online (forum posting) 13 Sept. “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. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”

Apparently we all have Australia to thank for popularizing the ie abbreviation, in this case. Some people have tried out selfy, but it's never stuck.

The lexigraophical science (and data) behind the Word of the Year competition is more intense than you'd expect when the end result is picking a word that's plastered all over social media. Vice writes that "researchers start with something called the Oxford Dictionaries New Monitor Corpus, a programme that collects some 150 million words in use every month by scanning new web content. In addition to tracking how often a word is used, it analyzes how it’s being employed—in what context, register, and so on."

That scan keeps track of what words are in popular use and has the ability to spot up-and-comers like selfie. But beyond those 150 million, Oxford Dictionaries maintains a corpus of two billion words, which is, well, a lot.