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.

Food: words that reflect our lifestyle

Many new words added to Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries online recently involve food. Not just types of food, although there are always plenty of those to add as our eating habits become ever more international, but words that describe ways of life.

In some cases these are not lifestyle choices but necessities, such as food pantry, an organization that distributes food to food banks to provide for those who cannot afford to buy food. Food security, the state of having reliable access to enough nutritious food, has declined in many developing countries, leading to the opposite, food insecurity. While I regret the need for such words, perhaps their existence is at least recognition of the conditions of people whose employment and income are insecure, the precariat.

shutterstock_325346537Some words, such as clean eating, imply approval or disapproval, with implicit criticism of the opposites. If there is ‘clean’ food, then this suggests that other food is ‘dirty’, bad in some way and therefore unacceptable. Clean eating is about choices, choosing certain food groups, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, often organic, and nuts, pulses and whole grains, while rejecting others, mostly processed foods, and those high in fat or sugar. Followers can become obsessed with restricted diets, leading to a condition known as orthorexia, in which they consider all other foods to be harmful, and become ill through lack of a balanced diet. Like anorexia, orthorexia is derived from the Greek -orexia – ‘appetite’, and combined with ortho – ‘correct’, from Greek orthos – ‘straight, upright’. The popularity of energy bars and energy drinks plays further upon people’s desires to eat in the right way, or at least to believe that they are doing so. The sporty, healthy sound of these belies the fact that they can be packed with sugar.

The obsession with health, especially size and weight, is also reflected in body fascism, body shaming and fat shaming. All three terms are concepts involving criticism of someone’s appearance. The media, especially social media, has a lot to answer for, as those are the forums where such actions chiefly take place, either in personal comments or in journalism:

Body fascism is undoubtedly a factor in television casting.

Celebrities joined the fight against cyberbullying and body shaming.

Instead of embracing her figure and all its curves, and standing up to fat shaming, she caved in and gave in to peer pressure.

As well as pressure to conform to body image, there is also pressure to behave ethically in buying food and to dispose of leftovers thoughtfully. We can support fair trade by buying goods from employers who offer decent working conditions and a living wage. Is your leftover food compostable? If so, don’t throw it away, adding to landfill or causing pollution. Discarded cooking oil contributes to the creation of a fatberg, a large mass of solid waste found in the sewers beneath us.

Thinking of pleasanter matters, you might enjoy cooking up specialities, such as mousselines and other cheffy dishes involving complicated recipes and methods:

The five-course lunch included dishes such as poached eggs with artichoke mousseline.

Others prefer comfort food, often associated with childhood or home cooking:

Stews are the ultimate comfort food, particularly in cold weather.

My comfort food – the food that reminds me of being a child – is egg and chips.

And if you don’t want to cook, you could enjoy one of many takeaways available, for example a shawarma, another name for a doner kebab, a Middle Eastern food that’s popular all over the world.

How do new words come about? Words like shawarma and mousseline have been adopted into English from other languages, here Arabic and French, along with the food itself. Others, like orthorexia, are created to describe a new condition. Where medical and scientific terms are concerned, the origins are often Latin or Greek. Many new words are compounds where two or more words are put together, such as food hall, food security, food insecurity, comfort food, fair trade, body fascism, clean eating. They might have started as collocations, such as fair trade, or they might have been deliberately put together to create a concept, such as clean eating. Others are new meanings added to existing words, such as banger, which is not just a sausage (see Word of the Month, January 2018).

Eating habits and ways of life are constantly changing, adding flavour and colour to our expanding vocabulary. Check out all the new words and meanings recently added to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site here.

Victoria Bull taught English in Sussex and London before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 2004. She has worked on a number of dictionaries including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the ELTon award-winning Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and the ESU award-winning Oxford Student’s Dictionary. She is the editor of Oxford Wordpower Dictionary, Oxford Primary Dictionary for Eastern Africa and the Oxford Children’s Picture Dictionary for learners of English.

IMO: abbreviations and acronyms

Group of a students chatting with their smartphonesDo you suffer from FOMO? Well, IMO, you’re not alone. If you fear missing out on the latest new words, then you’ve come to the right place. FOMO (fear of missing out) and IMO (in my opinion) are both abbreviations to be found in Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries online. More are added every few months as the content is updated.

Many of these abbreviations come from text messages, emails and social media, where people want to respond immediately and communicate quickly. Brevity is important, especially with Twitter, where there is a limit of 140 characters per tweet. They are often abbreviations for common colloquial expressions, keeping up the informal, often personal and subjective nature of these electronic communications.

Among recent additions to our dictionary are:


Do you use these? If so, then you probably know that the letters stand for:

as far as I’m concerned
in case you missed it
if I recall correctly
to be honest

Some abbreviations, such as FOMO, are also acronyms, that is, they are spoken as a word, not a series of letters, and become words in their own right.

[British English]

[American English]

In the lead up to the American elections in 2016, the words POTUS (President of the United States) and FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States; Word of the Month, January 2017), were in frequent use. Slightly less well used is SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States). All are easy to read and pronounce. They are recognizable and space-saving in journalism and the media, where they are chiefly used.

British politics is full of abbreviations. Not all of them are memorable, but JAM has been on everyone’s lips since the Prime Minister Theresa May drew attention to those people who are ‘just about managing’ in society.

In the field of economics, two popular acronyms are BRIC and, more recently, MINT. These words are composed from the initials of countries grouped together: the fast-growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and a newer group of economic interest, Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey. The term MINT was coined in 2014 by the economist Jim O’Neill, who was also the first to spot the huge potential of the BRIC countries and predict how the world would change.

Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey – MINT – could become the new name on people’s lips, and further overturn the old world order.

In education, the term STEM is a useful acronym for the key subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, now central to many curricula worldwide. We derive STEAM from this, which includes and recognizes the importance of the Arts in this curriculum. Both acronyms make it easy for people to write about and discuss these topics. Mint, jam, stem and steam are existing words in their own right, helping to make the acronyms memorable, even though there are no connections in meaning. In language teaching CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) is a well-known term that describes learning a subject through the medium of another language, a method which aims to improve language learning by giving it context.

Read any newspaper article and it will be full of abbreviations, often unfamiliar or specific only to the subject written about, in which case the full form is usually given the first time the abbreviation is used. However, other abbreviations are common because the subjects are important or topical. Three that have been added to our dictionaries website recently are FGM (female genital mutilation), LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer or questioning). These topics, relating to society and culture, can cause controversy and consternation, and generate much discussion, as rights, legislation and changes are debated.

I hope you’ve read this blog to the end, and not been tempted to mark it TL;DR (too long; didn’t read or too long; don’t read). Look out for these and other abbreviations at Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries online, and do send us your suggestions in the comments box below.

Check out all the new words and meanings added to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site this month here.

Victoria Bull is a Senior Editor in ELT Dictionaries at OUP. She taught EFL and ESOL in FE colleges in London before coming to Oxford in 2004.

Life is a contest – how idioms evolve

baseballIn their classic book Metaphors We Live By (1980), Lakoff and Johnson argued that the whole way we view the world – the way we think, act and live – is governed by underlying concepts which are metaphorical in nature: for example ‘argument is war’ or ‘time is money’. We often think of metaphors as something unusual and poetic, challenging us to look at things in a different way, and literary metaphors may do just that. Everyday metaphors – idioms – on the other hand, may do the opposite. New idioms catch on because they fit into the way we already view the world.

The language of sport is a very fertile source of idioms. We love to view life, business or politics in terms of a game or contest. For Americans, the national sport above all others is baseball. Inside baseball means expert knowledge about baseball but it is also used for technical information about any subject (especially when there is too much of it, as in Don’t give me all the inside baseball.) Batting average is a term in both cricket and baseball but only in American English does it also mean ‘the level of success or achievement that a person or company has in an activity’. (The company’s batting average with new technologies has been spotty recently.) Wheelhouse has spread from its literal meaning in sailing to idiomatic uses in both baseball and life: right in your wheelhouse is the area where it’s easiest to hit the ball and also where you feel most comfortable and in control. If the situation gets more challenging, however, you may need to put on your game face (= a serious expression) so as not to let your opponent know what you are thinking. And if things get really serious, you may even find that life has stopped being a game and become a battlefield. If you are lucky you will manage to dodge a bullet but there is always a risk that innocent people will get caught in the cross hairs.

A conceptual metaphor that we can apply to language itself is the survival of the fittest. Words and expressions must adapt or die. There are many examples of idioms that have outlived their literal meanings. Some recent idioms reference items that are already old-fashioned or obsolete. Others have extended their use by changing their form. Some people keep repeating the same thing over and over in a way that is very annoying like a broken record (but who actually listens to records any more?) ‘What’s that in old money?’ we Brits of a certain age might ask when faced with ‘newfangled’ measures like kilograms. (The UK and Ireland decimalized their currencies in 1971.) new words_1A long time ago people used to wear hats in all weathers and to take your hat off to somebody was a sign of respect. The expression I take my hat off to you survived even when it became a metaphorical hat, not a literal one. Now there’s a new twist: in electronic communication, the preferred form of this expression is the ultra-concise hat tip, as in Hat tip to Jen Bradbery for the link to this blog.

Other new idioms reflect the activities and concerns of the time. During the 2016 elections for Mayor of London there was much discussion of dog whistle politics. It is well known that dog whistles sound at frequencies that dogs can hear but humans can’t. The term can be applied to a political message that is only intended for and heard by a particular group of people. (He made use of the dog whistle on issues like immigration and crime.) And President Obama popularized the mic drop. This is the act of deliberately dropping your microphone at the end of a performance or speech that you think you did particularly well. If there’s no microphone, never mind, you can drop it metaphorically: Wow! Boom! Mic drop! The US now has a new president and we may be entering a new era of fake news, post-truth and extreme vetting – three of the most recent items to be added in this update. Preliminary analyses in the media of Donald Trump’s language suggest he favours simplicity, repetition and hyperbole over metaphor. Is this the new normal?

Nonetheless, there’s a golden thread that runs through all of this. That’s an idea or feature that is present in all parts of something, holds it together and gives it value. It’s that language can express anything in human experience. If there is no word for the precise idea you want to convey, you can use your creativity and make one up. Metaphors are an easy way to do this, because of the extent to which we already view the world in metaphors. If other people recognize the concept behind your new expression, they may start using it too.

Finally, and on a completely unrelated note: buggy, glitchy, laggy, spammy, techie. Do you notice a trend in these new informal adjectives connected with computing? Which is the odd one out? Check out all the new words and meanings added to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site this month here.


Lakoff G. and Johnson M., Metaphors We Live By, The University of Chicago Press; 1980, 2003

Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994. She has worked on a number of dictionaries for learners of English, including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Oxford Collocations Dictionary. She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurusa dictionary of synonyms and of the ELTon award-winning Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.

How new words are created

4.1.1‘Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”… You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.’

In this way, Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass tries to explain some unusual words to the curious Alice. Slithy didn’t pass into general use, but the idea of the portmanteau word certainly did, and has survived long after the portmanteau itself – a large heavy suitcase that opens into two parts – has fallen out of use.

A portmanteau word is created by combining the beginning of one word and the end of another and keeping the meaning of each. A less colourful term for it is a blend and it is one of the more ingenious ways in which new words can be generated. Among the hundred new words added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online this month, are hangry (angry because you are hungry) and frenemy (someone who is both your friend and your enemy). ‘Hack’ combines with ‘activist’ to give us hacktivist (a political or social campaigner who secretly looks at information on someone else’s computer system) and with ‘marathon’ to form hackathon (an event at which a large number of people work together to develop new software products in a matter of days).

Some new compounds are like portmanteau words but just take the beginning of each word: dash cam (dashboard camera) and EdTech (educational technology) are two examples. Short words can be absorbed whole into the new word and they can generate both portmanteau words and new compound words. There has recently been a spate of new informal words attempting to capture the habits and behaviour of men: manscaping (man + landscaping) is when a man shaves off all his body hair in order to try and look more attractive; to mansplain (man + explain) is to explain carefully to someone (as if she’s dumb) something that she already knows all about; and man flu is simply a bad cold that a man treats as if it were flu or something more serious.

Some people complain that these new ‘man’ words are sexist and it is wise to be aware that they may give offence. This does not stop people from using them, however. Manspreading has an interesting history. This is the practice of a man sitting on public transport with his legs wide apart, taking up more space than he needs and preventing other people from sitting down. This term became popular when New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority ran a poster campaign against the habit. The posters never used the term ‘manspreading’: they simply said ‘Dude! Stop the spread.’ It was the media, taking up the campaign, who called it ‘manspreading’ and the term stuck.

Other words that have been generating new compounds recently include warrior and capital. A ‘warrior’ is any kind of campaigner – it covers quite a wide range, from class warrior and culture warrior to keyboard warrior and road warrior. ‘Capital’ is a valuable resource in the form of skills or knowledge or influence, including human capital, political capital and social capital.

New words form in other ways too. Suffixes can be added to form new derivatives with a different part of speech. If something has impact, then it is impactful. Interdisciplinarity and interoperability are the qualities of being interdisciplinary or interoperable. But there doesn’t even have to be a suffix. When two geeks get together they can geek or geek out over computing tasks, technical stuff or anything that interests them. The noun has become a verb.

Existing verbs can generate new phrasal verbs. Even though telephones no longer have dials, the verb dial has stuck and now gives us dial somebody in (to a conference call) and dial something up (to order something by phone). Equipment may or may not be controlled by dials, but, regardless, you can dial down or dial up the volume, heat or power. These terms can also be used figuratively: He called on both sides to dial down the anger. Or you can be/get dialled in: As an actor, she really gets dialled into her roles.

Language is endlessly creative and generative. Check out all the new words and meanings added to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site this month here. And look out for the next update, when the focus will be on idioms.

About the author: Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994. She has worked on a number of dictionaries for learners of English, including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Oxford Collocations Dictionary. She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus – a dictionary of synonyms and of the ELTon award-winning Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.