Every year, various budding new words battle it out to be celebrated as the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’. Only one lucky word will make the cut and this time the winner was announced to be the well-deserving selfie. Considering our tech-savvy lifestyles and passion for taking quick snaps and sharing them with ever more popular social media sites like Facebook, Flickr and Instagram, it comes as no surprise that selfie should be the champion neologism.

The definition penned by the OED describes selfie as:

“a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”

In order to qualify for nomination, the word need not have been conceived within the last year but it must have become prominent within that time and it also has to demonstrate the ‘inventiveness’ of English speakers in keeping up with social changes. Selfie certainly fits the bill: although the first example comes from 2002, according to the OED, usage increased by a phenomenal 17,000% in the last year.

Both selfy and selfie are found but the latter is generally more widespread. As Judy Pearsall, the OED‘s editorial director, explained to the Guardian, “[t]he use of the diminutive -ie suffix is notable, as it helps to turn an essentially narcissistic enterprise into something rather more endearing”. It is also suspected that the linguistic craze originated in Australia, partly because the first documented example comes from an Australian online forum, partly because of this suffix variant which is more popular in Oz.

Despite selfie being the ‘it’ word of the moment, its root word self has been around far longer than the English language or even our Germanic ancestors. Linguists suspect that the term derives from Proto-Indo-European, a language that was around some 6,000 years ago, in the form *sel-bho. So even though the selfie might be a slightly narcissistic craze, we are essentially slightly narcissistic creatures since it seems that as much as we like taking photos of ourselves now, we’ve always quite enjoyed talking about ourselves too.

Other nominees that didn’t quite make it include: olinguito, binge-watch, twerk and schmeat. But it’s the past winners that are a really interesting look into how our language and society have changed over the recent years.

2012 – omnishambles

2011 – squeezed middle

2010 – big society

2009 – simples

2008 – credit crunch

2007 – carbon footprint

2006 – bovvered

2005 – sudoku

2004 – chav


One Tough Cookie

A cookie or a biscuit?

A cookie or a biscuit?

Looking in the shop window of a little bakery in Groningen, the Netherlands, I saw an interesting item for sale, a koekje. Koekjes are small cakes. Cookies are essentially small cakes. Could the two be related?

Although it might be convenient to think that cookie must just come from cook, the reality is that cookies do actually descend from the Dutch koekjes. So in the great debate between the British biscuit and the American cookie, it turns out that the cookie isn’t even American at all, but Dutch.

Cookie was first recorded in American English in 1703 and it came across the Atlantic with the many Dutch immigrants who arrived in the 17th century. It came from the diminutive form of cake, koek, which was derived from kaka in Old Norse in the early 13th century, which in turn originated from West Germanic *kokon-.

Biscuit, conversely, is not Germanic but Latinate. For a long time (between the 16th and the 18th century), biscuit was actually spelled bisket. The spelling was altered under the influence of the Old Italian cognate biscotto. Both words came from Latin (panis) bis coctus which literally means ‘bread twice cooked’. Like our modern-day Italian biscotti, the original biscuits were crisp and dry because they were cooked in a two-part process: they were first baked and then dried out in a slow oven.

On the other hand, the original cookies were not crisp or dry or twice-baked but soft and would rise slightly in the oven. Cookies used a rising agent; biscuits did not. On this occasion, as time progressed, it was not the language itself that changed but the confectionary items that the terms defined: cookies and biscuits converged.

So the next time the cookie/biscuit debate crops up in conversation, it might be useful to add that a cookie is actually a cake, a biscuit is more like biscotti, a cookie is really Dutch, and a biscuit is in fact Italian.

Pilgrims and Peregrines

Peregrine falcon

The peregrine falcon

Every so often, two words in English will crop up which look fairly similar, sound fairly similar and behave fairly similarly but are still two distinct words. Pilgrim and peregrine are two such examples and the reason why they are so alike is because they are essentially the same word, or rather, they come from the same root word. In this case, the root word is the Latin peregrinus, meaning ‘foreigner’, which breaks down further into per, meaning ‘through’, and agr-, meaning ‘land’. After that, the word split off in two separate directions, altering the spelling or meaning here or there, until we ended up with the two words we have now.

Looking at peregrine first, it’s a term we associate nowadays with the peregrine falcon, whose Latin name is falco peregrinus. But peregrine has another meaning which is now archaic:

1. coming from abroad
2. travelling or migratory; wandering

This neatly explains the bird’s given name: it has one of the longest migrations of any North American bird and can cover a total of 25,000km in a year, which is why it’s known as the ‘wanderer’. The birds were also taken by the falconer during their migration rather than directly from the nest.

Pilgrim has had a more complicated journey. By Late Latin, the original peregrinus became pelegrinus by a process called dissimilation. The two sounds, ’r’ and ‘l’, are very similar: they are liquids which are consonants that can be extended, like vowels, but are made without any friction. Because of this, it’s quite normal for them to be interchanged as language evolves.  In this case, the first ‘r’ probably changed to an ‘l’ so as to be more distinct from the second ‘r’. Essentially, it was just easier to both say and understand pelegrinus than peregrinus. Interestingly, Spanish maintained the original spelling with peregrino while Italian took the dissimilated version pellegrino. Meanwhile, Old French developed pelerin which was then loaned into Old English as pilegrim, in around the 12th century. Finally, the trisyllabic word became disyllabic and English had developed another pair of related but quite different words.

Peregrine (adj.): having a tendency to wander
Pilgrim (n.): someone who travels to a holy place


There are many ways that new words can appear in a language. Sometimes words are loaned from foreign languages. Sometimes words evolve and develop new meanings. Some words are stuck together to make new ones; others are shortened, lengthened or clipped. But rarely is a word simply plucked from thin air; most words have some sort of family tree. Blurb is perhaps one of the best made-up words there is.

Some say that Gelett Burgess, and American humorist, coined the term in 1907. At that time, it was the custom to give books a special dust jacket and on it would be printed testimonials to the novel as well as a picture of an eye-catching woman. Burgess’ novel, Are you a Bromide?, was selling well and it featured an especially buxom blonde on the jacket. He dubbed the character Miss Blinda Blurb and the name stuck, coming to mean not only the picture but also any flattering praise printed on the cover until eventually the pictures dropped out of use and blurb came to refer simply to the back cover summary intended to attract readers that we see on every book nowadays.

Burgess used the word to mock the excessive appraisal found in blurbs and in doing so vastly popularized the term.

“To ‘blurb’ is to make a sound like a publisher. The blurb was invented by Frank A. Munsey when he wrote on the front of his magazine in red ink ‘I consider this number of Munsey’s the hottest pie that ever came out of my bakery.’ … A blurb is a check drawn on Fame, and it is seldom honored.” [“Publishers’ Weekly,” May 18, 1907]