Selfie is the latest addition to a small family of English words using the diminutive suffix -ie as an informal marker.
Purely diminutive forms have been around for hundreds of years; puppy, likely borrowed from the Middle French word poupée, meaning “doll” or “toy” (and cognate with puppet), dates from the fourteenth century, as does baby, a diminutive (as is babi, and along with babe) of the Middle English word baban, and hypocorisms, or pet names in diminutive form (such as Johnny), were first seen in the early fifteenth century in Scotland.
Scottish was also the inspiration for the -ie ending, first seen in laddie, meaning “young boy,” in the mid-sixteenth century. Adoption of this form into English followed the popularity of Scotsman Robert Burns’s poems, which he wrote in the late 1700s and which feature such terms as laddie and its female equivalent, lassie.
The latter word was the name of a heroic collie dog in an 1859 novel that probably inspired a similar character in a series of stories and novels written throughout the twentieth century, as well as films and television series. And speaking of dogs, doggie (also spelled doggy) was first attested around the same time as laddie and lassie appeared.
The first common modern word utilizing the -ie diminutive is movie, first attested in 1911, just after the dawn of the cinematic age; it is so engrained in our vocabulary that few of us give any thought to its origin as a slang diminutive of “moving picture.” Two decades later, technological developments that enabled films to be produced with sound prompted the short-lived term talkie. (Within a few years, virtually all films were talkies, so the word soon became obsolete.)
At about the same time, British writer Aldous Huxley expanded on that breakthrough in filmmaking by alluding in his novel Brave New World to feelies, films that incorporate touch and smell in the moviegoing experience. (The term later referred to facsimiles or models of objects featured in a computer game that are packaged with the game.)
In the 1940s, the term hippie was coined as a pejorative diminutive of hipster, meaning “one who is self-consciously trendy” (first attested in 1941 but enjoying a resurgence over the last decade or so); a decade later, it (and the alternate spelling hippy) was appropriated to refer to people adopting a countercultural appearance and attitude. Also during the late 1960s, a radical group called the Youth International Party, inspired by hippie and alluding to the acronym of the name, dubbed themselves Yippies.
The next -ie slang word to come along was foodie, referring to a person with gourmet tastes; it first appeared in the early 1980s. About twenty years after that, people began to refer to photographs they took of themselves as “selfies.” Though the practice dates back to the dawn of photography, the advent of cell phones with photographic capabilities made it unusually convenient for anyone to take selfies; a development that in hindsight seems to have been inevitable is the selfie stick, a pole used as an extension of the arm to provide a greater range when taking a selfie.
Selfie and its similarly constructed antecedents are exhibits in the case for the introduction of new vocabulary as a democratic process: Anyone can coin a word. With the ubiquity of social media, it’s much easier than before for such neologisms to go viral, but they can easily get lost in the signal-to-noise clutter. But selfie and many other new words have thrived because they fill a need; how else can we concisely refer to photographs one takes of oneself (and other people and/or a background)? If you find yourself at a loss for words, create one of your own and see whether it has leggies.