Selfie and Other Words With -ie

by Elaina Meiser

Language helps make the conceptual or abstract concrete. Without it the transfer of ideas becomes extremely difficult, leading to all sorts of problems within and amongst groups. However, language, like knowledge, doesn't come all at once, with one of its phenomenons being that it can take years or even centuries for a word to be created to go with a particular action.

For example, the simple act of taking a photo of yourself.

The selfie

Although most people would assume that snapping a picture of yourself is something just invented in the current century, the truth is that you have to take a giant time travelling step back to 1839 for the first selfie. Cameras back then were slow, real slow. And when all a photographer named Robert Cornelius had to do was remove the lens cap, walk in front of the camera, and wait about a minute for the picture to be taken, the selfie was born.

But it would be another 180 years before the term “selfie” was created.

You never know what seemingly innocuous made up words or terms are going to seriously affect our lexicon. Trendy little phrases catch fire and then vanish in a blink of the eye, never to be spoken again. But sometimes something sticks and makes a deeper impact, and if a single word could define the last ten years in digital pop culture, “selfie” would be the hands down heavyweight champion.

Of course it's no mystery where the popularity of the term came from. With the rise of MySpace in 2003 being shortly followed by Facebook in 2004, the art of snapping a quick photo of yourself in the mirror and posting it onto your very own online profile became the cheap and easy way to let the world see you in all your teenage and twenty-something magnificence. However, technology never sleeps, and when the iPhone 4 arrived in 2010 with cameras that allowed you to snap a photo of yourself while looking directly at the screen, the ability to take perfectly centered, clear shots of yourself all but totally unlimited the dim, faraway mirror picture.

So the question is though, where did the term “selfie” actually come from?

Interestingly enough, “selfie” actually became a real thing before the advent of the major social networking sites. In 2002, an Australian named Nathan Hope unwittingly made history when he went out for a night of hard partying to celebrate his friend's 21st birthday and got drunk enough to trip and hit his mouth on a flight of stairs, resulting in a smashed up mouth that would require stiches. A few day later, when Nathan was in an online forum, he asked about the dissolvable stiches that were causing him irritation and posted a photo that showed his stitched up lower lip.

It was then that history was made when he followed the posting of the photo with this line:

“And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”

And things just snowballed from there. So let's look at the mechanics of the word itself, how would Nathan even come up with “selfie”?

Well, the truth is it wasn't just out-of-the-blue, random word creation. If you study Australian dialect, Aussies commonly shorten words and then add “y” or “ie” at the end. So for example, 'kindergarten' turns into 'kindie' and 'postal worker' becomes 'postie'.

However, abbreviating words and slapping on the 'ie' isn't just an Australian thing. Throughout the English-speaking world, the -ie suffix has been used to create a noun-forming ending in words such as:

How It Began

Despite being well aware of the frequency and meaning of the -ie suffix, it's still unclear as to where the practice of all this began. Although there appears to be a connection with French, there's a lack of tangible evidence due to the suffix not having the same meaning as in English. And although there are commonalities with Scots, their usage also lacks the same endearing implications that -ie adds to the words it's attached to when practiced in English.

So while this leaves the mystery of the -ie origin open, there are other -ie words that come about in ways that are quite atypical to the usually quality of the -ie suffix. For example, 'zombie' is a word spawned from two other words, 'nzambi' meaning 'god' and 'zumbi' meaning 'fetish, used in Kikongo, a language of West Africa. Thanks to movies and horror fiction, the words eventually formed into what we know as 'zombie' where it would forever become linked with voodoo magic.


English is a tricky language. The endless nuances and seemingly strange inconsistencies such as words being pronounced in ways that don't jive with the way they're written can definitely confuse a non-native speaker. But with its numerous nuances and idiosyncrasies, English is a fascinating language as well and by learning its history and outside influences, you can develop a greater understanding for the way it's spoken. The -ie suffix is just one example of the language's colorful variations and I hope learning about its origins has given you greater insight into its mechanics.

About the author

Elaina Meiser is a graduate student and an enthusiastic blogger. She started blogging over five years ago as a hobby and now her writing experience includes articles at Resumes Expert. Elaina loves creative arts, different tips and tricks guides, excursion and backpacking trips. You can follow her on Twitter.


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