In a war of words, which will reign supreme in 2013: selfie or science?
In November, Oxford Dictionary deemed selfie defined as — "noun \sɛlfi\ a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website" — its word of the year. But rival Merriam-Webster disagrees and has declared the word science — "noun \ˈsī-ən(t)s\ knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation" — as the winner.
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Selfie and science aren't remotely similar words, so how did these dictionaries come up with such different results?
I take deh selfie from science pic.twitter.com/wErRYPRu68— Jacob Zippel (@Jake_Zippel) December 3, 2013
Merriam-Webster determined science to be the top word by analyzing approximately 100 million searches per month of the word on their online dictionary, then detecting words with the greatest increase in searches compared to last year. On the other hand, Oxford Dictionary used software to scan web content and identify a new word that captures the zeitgeist and the cultural climate of 2013 (Oxford notes that usage of selfie has increased 17,000% since last year).
The two words vary greatly. While science is old, accepted and established, selfie is new, informal and nontraditional. “If you use the word selfie, you are not actively involved in finding out more about that word, you are not conscious about that word as a word," Grant Barrett, co-host of NPR's Away with Words and lexicographer tells Yahoo Shine."The word is doing its job and not being talked about as a word.” But, he contends, you are thinking about science as a word.
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Merriam-Webster’s system only relied on their own analytics to decide their word of the year. The increase in searches of the word science could be attributed to students researching the definition to use in their middle school lab reports, Barrett says. He added that Oxford, in its hopes of naming an of-the-moment word, possibly used subjective judgment and eliminated the words that have already proven their place in the lexicon and picked something with a little bit of sparkle and novelty.
Confused? Not to worry. To clarify, with selfie, you take a duck face photo of yourself and post it to Twitter with #selfie. It’s an action without background, history or deeper context other than what's happening that moment. With science, which was searched by users 176% more than last year, the term is abstract and could mean millions of different things. For example, people could be prompted to search for the definition based on political discussions about climate change, criticism of Malcom Gladwell’s latest book as ‘phony’ science, or an increase of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in schools at all levels.Barrett wouldn’t say definitively in his expert opinion whether science or selfie was better, but he hopes that in 50 years when we look back at 2013, the words of the year, no matter what dictionary you prefer, will show a nutshell view of what was happening in 2013. And if that’s the case, then maybe twerk (or perhaps Miley Cyrus) should have won for this year.