Taking a selfie

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In front of the window of a candy store in Peebles, a small town about an hour's drive south of Edinburgh, an elderly American woman approached a gentleman she didn't know and, holding out a cell phone, asked:

"Would you please take a selfie of my friend and I in front of this window?"

She was not aware that she had approached a linguist.

The gentleman in question was my friend Professor Heinz Giegerich, a distinguished phonologist and morphologist at the University of Edinburgh. He is a fine scholar, and not just a gentleman but also a gentle man (that is different and rarer). It would not be like him to snarl that of my friend and I should be of my friend and me (or perhaps better, of me and my friend). Nor did he remonstrate with the woman over what appeared to be a clear misuse of the noun selfie.

He seethed quietly inside, he tells me, at the double insult to the English language; but instead of being uncooperative (taking a selfie and handing the phone back to the mystified woman with a picture of himself on the screen), he photographed the woman and her friend, which was evidently what they had wanted. He is a kind and gentle soul.

But the story left me wondering whether what he had encountered was just a momentary slip of the tongue, or whether there really are people out there now who think that selfie means "digital photograph taken with the camera app in a smartphone". Or perhaps (roughly as Heinz Giegerich, Jonathan Lundell, and Jeffrey L. Whitledge have all now suggested to me) "casual portrait, typically for sharing, that includes the owner or controller of the camera or smartphone on which it was taken." If that is the meaning, the American woman used the word correctly. But I had formed the impression that a picture was only a selfie if the photographer was simultaneously the person being photographed.

Added later: People have pointed out to me that putatively incorrect use of the term selfie has been treated in at least two cartoon strips: Diesel Sweeties here and Doghouse Diaries here. Both seem to presuppose what I was presupposing about the original meaning of the word. One or two people have also suggested that perhaps the woman was thinking the word was cellphie, and meant "picture taken on a cell phone".

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