by Colin McIntosh​

The past couple of years have seen a dramatic rise in the use of the word selfie, a word which won the accolade of ‘word of the year’ two years ago, beating onesie and twerking to the top spot.

The word selfie is an abbreviation, obviously. But an abbreviation of what? Self-taken photograph? Self-portrait photograph? Has anyone ever called it that? Does it matter? In every corner of the globe, within a very short space of time, the selfie has taken over the world. The idea of the selfie is not new: Rembrandt painted almost a hundred of them; the Turin Shroud may be one of the earliest. But it is only with the rise of the smartphone and the ability to upload photos instantly to social media that it has become ‘a thing’. New technology demands a new word – otherwise how would it be possible to market it?

The must-have accessory for the selfie-snapper is the selfie stick. Living in Cambridge, I constantly risk injury when walking around the centre from tourists trying to perform the feat of extending a selfie stick while at the same time squeezing themselves into the frame of their smartphones. Several serious injuries have been attributed to the use of the selfie stick, and they have now been banned from many places, including festivals, nightclubs, and museums. In one case, though, it actually saved someone’s life, when it was used to drag a drowning teenager to safety off the coast of Massachusetts.

Other self words recently added to the Cambridge English Dictionary include self-medication, the practice of taking medicine or other drugs to treat an illness or condition without asking a doctor; self-harming, the act of ​deliberately ​hurting yourself, for ​example by ​cutting yourself, because you have ​emotional ​problems; and self-loathing, having very ​strong ​feelings of ​dislike for yourself.

One self word not yet added to the Cambridge English Dictionary, but which we are keeping a close eye on, is themself. Themself is a gender-non-specific reflexive pronoun used to refer to they when used as a subject referring to a singular and unknown person. Traditional grammarians would insist on this:

Whoever did this should be ashamed of himself.

But that is not acceptable because it appears to exclude at least half of the world’s population. More liberal descriptivists would accept the following, despite the grating discordance between singular and plural pronouns:

Whoever did this should be ashamed of themselves.

The non-standard grammar has:

Whoever did this should be ashamed of themself.

Other neologisms have been proposed to do this job, including thonself:

Whoever did this should be ashamed of thonself.

For the moment, themself remains a stigmatized word (probably by some who actually use it themselves without realizing it). The Cambridge English Dictionary does not recommend themself, but we’re keeping an eye on the situation!