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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