Selfies: There are groupies, ussies, shelfies and even sealfies - but self-obsessed portraiture isn't just a modern phenomenon

A selfie doesn't have to be a photographic, social-media version of a self-portrait. A recent example from Tumblr features a painting of Henry VIII with the caption: "art museums are actually just full of renaissance selfies"

We typically think of a selfie as a photo taken by and of oneself, whether in a mirror or by holding a camera at arm's length. Hence the name. But a recently recounted anecdote from Mark Liberman, a phonetician at the University of Pennsylvania, on his Language Log blog, suggests some people are extending it more figuratively.

He wrote: “In front of the window of a sweet shop 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, explained Liberman, aware that she had approached a linguist.

Lest you think it's only older people such as Liberman's example who are using the term selfie to mean something like “photo of the camera-owner, probably to be posted on social media,” a recent example from the photo-sharing website Tumblr shows another possible meaning of the word. It features a painting of Henry VIII with the caption: “art museums are actually just full of renaissance selfies.”

So a selfie doesn't have to be a photographic, social-media version of a self-portrait: Henry VIII, after all, wasn't an artist (unlike Van Gogh he wasn't painting himself); and he wasn't on Facebook. Rather, he was the one who commissioned the painting, just as the tourist asked the linguist to take a picture of her in front the sweet shop.

As a recent article in The Atlantic points out, it's not even clear that a selfie must only contain the self: the Ellen DeGeneres group selfie at the Oscars has about a dozen people in it and wasn't actually taken by Ellen, although it was at her request. And Ellen is hardly atypical in grabbing a few friends to join her in a shot or handing the phone over to a participant with slightly longer arms (although, granted, we're not all friends with Bradley Cooper and Meryl Streep). Coinages such as “group selfie”, “groupie”, and even “ussie” have been suggested for selfies containing multiple people, but even among people who use selfie sticks (extendable metal poles with camera mountings) they haven't caught on.

We can think of the extended meaning of selfie as more like the meaning of autobiography, although in a different medium. Many celebrities hire ghostwriters rather than write their own autobiographies, but an autobiography is still different from a biography because the subject has commissioned the work to be made and can have considerable influence over how it is presented. And it's also not inconsistent with the spirit of an autobiography to include a description of the friends and family members of the subject. In fact, it would be a strange autobiography that didn't mention a few other people, at least in passing.

The analogy of an autobiography further helps us makes sense of selfie-spinoff coinages such as shelfie (bookshelf) or sealfie (seal). The “self” aspect indicates that the thing being pictured is something the subject owns or wishes to be identified with, in the same kind of way that it might form the subject of an autobiographical essay.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Slate.com @Slate

Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution