Now that the millennial generation (born 1983-2004) is beginning to yield its last teen years to the homeland generation (born 2005-), we can begin to get an overview of the remarkable additions those millennials have given to our vocabulary.
In America, at least, the teen age is when a generation asserts itself as different from its predecessors, and when its members feel greatest solidarity with one another in creating distinctive new ways to view the world and talk about it. They then carry that vocabulary with them as they ascend into adulthood, middle age, and senior citizenhood.
It fits with the preposterous yet persuasive notion set forth by William Strauss and Neil Howe in Generations: the History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 (Quill, 1991) and elaborated in The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy -- What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous With Destiny (Broadway Books, 1997).
They assert, with page after page of supporting evidence, that everyone born in the United States within periods of about 20 years shares the same outlook on life. So, using Strauss and Howe’s decisions about starting and ending years, with us still we have members of the silent generation (b. 1925-42), known for juvenile delinquents, organization men, and rock ‘n’ roll; the boom generation (b.1943-60), who gave us among other things hippies, self-esteem, and love-ins; Generation X (b. 1961-81), known for slackers, road trips, and hooking up.
And then along came the millennials. Aided by the rapid development of spectacular technology, they led the way in embracing hashtags, abbrevs like YOLO -- and “awkward,” when face to face with real people rather than their devices.
The millennials also took to a remarkable revision of their worldview, made possible by the production of smartphones, especially the iPhone 4 in 2010 with lenses on both sides. It could look inward as well as outward. And along with it the millennials embraced a word that expresses that new two-way view: “selfie.”
“Selfie” is an almost perfect way to express the millennial attitude, being transparently both selfish and selfless.
It is unashamedly unpretentious, too. That’s because it’s spelled with -ie. It could as easily be spelled with -y, but that would make it more solemn. In a 1999 study, “The Pragmatics of the “Diminutive” -y/ie Suffix in English,” Lavinia Merlini Barbaresi catalogs in detail the various uses of that suffix, no matter how we spell it, concluding that the suffix means not so much diminutive as “nonserious.”
It’s used in “speech situations characterized by informality, familiarity, playfulness, and affection,” she writes. In short, it expresses the preferred millennial situation. No wonder they didn’t give a thought to saying “self-portrait” instead.
Not wrong, that is, just nonserious. It’s the same, I think, as using “foodie” rather than “gourmet,” though there are still more than a few people who prefer the latter.
And though Merlini Barbaresi treats -y and -ie as the same, and indeed when spoken the two possible spellings are pronounced alike, I think it needs the -ie to make it stand out as “nonserious” when written. There are too many other uses for -y.
“Foody,” for example, wouldn’t so clearly designate nonseriousness as “foodie,” for example, and “hippy” conveys quite a different meaning than “hippie.”
So, if you can characterize the millennial generation (or at least its stereotype) in a single word, and I think you can, without a doubt it must be “selfie.”