Selfhood: new words in the age of the individual

shutterstock_61682320It’s now been five years since ‘selfie’ became the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year, and yet selfie culture appears to be ever on the rise. Some see the selfie as a sign that our culture is becoming increasingly narcissistic (i.e. people admire themselves too much, particularly their appearance), while others argue that selfies can empower people to present themselves as unique individuals and encourage supportive online behaviour. Whatever you think about selfie culture, it would be hard to deny that in modern society, the emphasis on ‘self’ is all around us. It should therefore come as no surprise that the latest batch of new words we’ve added to Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries online features a number of expressions relating to the importance of the individual in today’s society.

Those who condemn selfie culture often accuse people who continually post selfies of being self-obsessed, meaning that they only think about their own life and circumstances, and not about anything else.

He’s a typical arrogant, self-obsessed celebrity.

She never thinks about anyone else – she’s completely self-obsessed!

Similarly, a person who thinks so much about themselves and their own interests that they don’t pay enough attention to anything else can be described as self-involved. Self-aggrandizement, which involves making yourself seem more powerful or important than you are, is a criticism that is sometimes directed at some of the people at the forefront of today’s selfie culture.

Constantly looking at images on social media that have been contrived to show ‘perfection’ may also provoke feelings of self-loathing, which means hatred of yourself, particularly among people who suffer from low self-esteem (= a feeling of not being happy with your own character and abilities). As a coping strategy, or a way of dealing with their problems, people with a negative self-image might self-medicate (= drink alcohol or take drugs) or engage in other self-destructive behaviours.

It may seem as though a lot of words starting with ‘self-‘ have negative associations, but this certainly isn’t always the case. For example, the activity of self-reflection, which involves thinking carefully about your own character and actions, often has a very positive outcome. Returning to the selfie debate, posting selfies can be viewed as an expression of selfhood, the quality that gives you an individual identity and makes you different from others, and can help people develop a positive self-identity.

Our concern with our needs as individuals is also reflected in several new entries relating to elements of our lifestyle. As consumers, nowadays we often seek out products that are customizable, meaning that they can be made to suit our individual requirements. Another term that seems to be cropping up more and more frequently is the adjective aspirational, which, in its newest sense, describes a goal or target that is very ambitious and may be more than you can achieve. This word can also describe somebody who wants very much to be successful in their career or to improve their social status and standard of living.

young, aspirational and independent women

advertising aimed at the aspirational classes

While the rise of the aspirational classes may be positive for the people who belong to that elite sector of society, several other recently added words highlight the struggle that other, less fortunate people face in today’s culture. The figurative sense of food chain, for example, reminds us that, while some people achieve success, there will always be other people ‘at the bottom of the food chain’.

The people working at the bottom of the food chain […] are effectively working for whatever you decide to pay them directly.

These people are the wage slaves, depending entirely on the money they receive for the jobs that they do, jobs that are not seen as skilled or important.

Beyond the world of work, the difficulties faced by those who are struggling against a seemingly uncaring society are also highlighted in the news and media, where increasingly we come across references to fuel poverty, the state of not being able to afford to heat your home, and rough sleepers, people who have no home and sleep outside.

But to end on a positive note, if you scan our list of new entries, you’ll see that we’ve added a number of compound nouns starting with the word ‘community’: community church, community garden, community hospital and community theatre. The words empathetic, meaning able to understand how somebody else feels because you can imagine what it is like to be that person, and empathetically also appear in the list. I’d like to think that these words offer a glimmer of hope for the modern age and show that, despite our increasing need to be seen and treated as individuals, society still has a heart after all.


Leonie Hey is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She taught English in Sardinia and worked as a language teacher in the UK before joining OUP in 2011.

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