How do you say ‘selfie’ in Danish, or French or Arabic?

(Adam63/Wikimedia Commons)

(Adam63/Wikimedia Commons)

This is the time of year when dictionaries and linguists issue their words of the year. (My favorite choice is the American Dialect Society’s because.)

There’ve been several choices, but the word that’s captured the global imagination is ‘selfie.’ And it hasn’t been limited to the English-speaking world.

The big moment of course, was that snapshot at Nelson Mandela’s memorial featuring Barack Obama, David Cameron, and the leader who took it, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. After that, there was no escaping ‘selfie.’

So when the Danes were debating whether it was appropriate selfie etiquette for their Prime Minister to take a picture like that at a memorial service, what word did they use for selfie?

They used…’selfie.’

“We stole your word,” says Karl Erik Stougaard, online editor of Denmark’s Politiken newspaper. “We also call it a ‘selfie.’”

‘Selfie’ began as English slang (it may have come into being in Australian English), and then saturated the entire world via social media. It all happened in a linguistic nanosecond, far too fast for speakers of other languages to come up with their own native expressions.

Of course, there’s always been lending and borrowing among languages. English is great loaner of foreign terms. But the difference now is that words like ‘selfie’ and ‘twerk’ enter popular parlance among English speakers and non-English speakers at roughly the same time, thanks largely to social media. There’s nothing like a popular hashtag to globalize a word. After that, you have little option but to use the default English term if you want to participate in the conversation.

To me, that speaks much more about our times than the word itself does. Yes, we in the early 21st century are having a narcissistic moment, but it’s not the first one. Narcissus, after all, was a figure from Ancient Greek mythology; we’ve been unhealthily obsessed with our own image for quite some time. (Don’t forgot all those painted self-portraits either.) The speed of selfie’s adoption seems more significant than any claims that it embodies the zeitgeist.

Have you heard a version of ‘selfie’ in another language? How does it translate? When did the start being used? Let us know in the comments below.

Here’s a selection of recent political cartoons from both the English-speaking and non-English-speaking worlds featuring selfies.


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