TERRY GROSS, HOST:
At about this time every year, our linguist Geoff Nunberg chooses his Word of the Year. Last year his choice was big data. At the time, some of us were scratching our heads because we weren't yet that familiar with the expression, but he really got it right. Big data became a theme of 2013 because of controversies surrounding data collection by corporations, retailers, and especially by government agencies after the revelations by Edward Snowden. Let's see what word Geoff's chosen this year.
GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: I feel a little defensive about choosing selfie as my Word of the Year for 2013. I've usually been partial to words that encapsulate one of the year's major stories, things like occupy or big data. Or like privacy, which is the word Dictionary.com chose this year. But others go with what I think of as mayfly words - the ones that bubble briefly to the surface in the wake of some fad or fashion.
Over recent years, the people at Oxford Dictionaries have chosen items like locovore, hypermiling, refudiate and unfriend, among others. You'd never know it was a period touched by economic collapse, bitter partisanship, or the growth of the surveillance state. So I wasn't surprised when Oxford announced last month that their choice for the word of the year was selfie, which beat out twerk and binge-watch.
It struck me as a word that wears its ephemerality on its outstretched sleeve. Any phenomenon whose most prominent evangelists are Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, Kendall and Kylie, probably isn't a good bet to bet around for the long haul. What changed my mind about the word was the uproar over the photo that the Danish prime minister took with President Obama and David Cameron at the memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela - and not because it was a selfie, but because it really wasn't.
There are people who use selfie for any picture you take of yourself as a document or record, even a passport photo. But that isn't why the word was invented. It's natural to want a photo when you find yourself sitting between the president and the British prime minister, or if that doesn't work for you, imagine standing next to the pope or Mariano Rivera.
And now that the camera lens has migrated to the front of the Smartphone, you don't have to look for somebody else to take it for you. But selfie came into existence for the pictures people take of themselves to display on social media sites like Instagram and Tumblr, often in stylized poses or artfully faded effects.
For a recent fad, selfies have unleashed a torrent of portentous yammer and invective. The word imputes an aura of narcissism to whatever it's attached to, whether it's apt or not. Use selfie to describe that banal Johannesburg snapshot and all of a sudden Obama becomes the selfie president.
A columnist at the New York Post writes that the event symbolizes the global calamity of Western decline. That gives selfie a cultural resonance you're not going to find with any of the other word-of-the-year finalists, not even twerk. The word lends itself to that coloring.
The self of selfie may originally have come from self-portrait, but once it's detached, it oscillates between positive and negative meanings depending on what follows it - from self-esteem to self-regard, from self-awareness to self-absorption. And the diminutive suffix on selfie can seesaw in the same way, from endearment to insult.
Selfie began its life as cutesie slang, like prezzies for presents, but now it's often derisive. It sounds infantile and, well, girly like hankie or tummy. That's how most people think of selfies. Men may post plenty of them, but say selfie and you evoke the Kardashians or a 16-year-old girl, not Geraldo Rivera posting a Twitter picture of himself naked to the waist.
And that's where a lot of the debates are focused. Are the selfies girls post a desperate kind of approval-seeking or the male gaze gone viral? Or are they tiny bursts of pride, empowering women to challenge conventional standards of beauty? Are they pure exhibitionism, or a kind of visual diary?
The answers, boringly, are yes, yes, yes and yes. Adolescents do selfies in different ways and for different reasons, just as grown-ups do with the other images that they feel the need to bring to the attention of their friends and followers - of their dinner cocktails or the view from their hotel window in Oaxaca.
There are people who have written about this with subtlety - I think of The New York Times' Jenna Wortham. But most readers aren't interested in stories about selfies that begin with fine distinctions. In a competitive media environment, the phenomenon calls out for a Grand Unifying Theory, for taking a stand for or against.
Or better still, you can make the selfie a proxy for all the deleterious effects of social media - oversharing, incessant distraction, fragmented identity, low self-esteem, and anything else that ails the culture. Hence the spectacle of critics and columnists vying for eyeballs with scathing denunciations of a selfie society where people will stoop to anything to get attention.
The connection to young girls isn't lost in all this. Phrases like the selfie society are meant to evoke a flighty puerile narcissism. It may seem a stretch to pin the state of the culture on what adolescents are doing on Instagram. But we have a penchant for diagnosing narcissism where other ages would have seen nothing more than old-fashioned vanity.
Anyway, I give the critics a lot of the credit for making selfie a contender for Word of the Year. When we look back on 2013, we'll recall this not just as the year when everybody was posting pictures of themselves on social media, but as the year when nobody could stop talking about it.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California Berkeley School of Information. You'll find links to his pieces about his Word of the Year for 2012 and 2011 on our website, freshair.npr.org.