A popular new word in English is selfie, which means ‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam, and uploaded to a social media website.’ Obviously the word is an extension of self, a native English cognate of the Spanish reflexive pronoun se, so it’s no coincidence that English self and Spanish se look similar and have similar meanings. Also from the same root is the Spanish adjective su, which bewilders English speakers with its many possible translations: ‘his; her; its; your; their.’

The s-words in the previous paragraphs are descendants of the Indo-European root *s(w)e-, which conveyed the notion ‘by oneself, apart, separate,’ and in fact separar/separate is borrowed from Latin sēparāre, which features sē– as a prefix. (Through French, English also has different-looking descendants of Latin sēparāre, including the verb sever and the adjective several). We find se- as a prefix meaning ‘apart’ in various other words that we’ve borrowed from Latin. A few examples are seguro/secure, etymologically ‘apart from care’; seleccionar/select, etymologically ‘to separate out, to set aside’; and secesión/secession ‘the separation of a political unit from a larger entity.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. georgettesullins
    Apr 05, 2014 @ 08:56:49

    I like it! I’ll use some of this as we embark on reflexive verbs next week. Thank you for updating my examples! Good one, professor.


  2. shoreacres
    Apr 05, 2014 @ 22:23:18

    I really am interested in the fact that the Indo-European root conveys “by oneself, apart, separate.” Of course a selfie can be taken anywhere, even in a crowd. Still, when I did an image search for “selfies” (not recommended for the faint of heart), the single quality that stood out was a strange sort of disconnectedness.

    It started me thinking about the role of the photographer in portraiture. Whether it’s Steve McCurry on assignment for National Geographic or an anonymous mother taking snapshots of a toddler, it seems to me there’s just “something” — some kind of communication, a higher level of attentiveness, whatever — that gives those photos more liveliness and depth than a selfie.

    Poorly stated, perhaps, but intriguing. Maybe we need a new photographer’s saying about, “Me, My Selfie, and Eye.”


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 05, 2014 @ 22:36:18

      There’s a lot to think about here. Although cell phones have made selfies easy, there’s a long history of people portraying themselves in other media and with older technologies. The first that comes to mind is all those self-portraits Rembrandt painted throughout his life, and Van Gogh did his share as well. Over the last several decades Cindy Sherman made a name for herself by photographing herself gotten up in all sorts of guises and costumes. And going back in time, the first we have record of in the Western tradition is Narcissus, whose ephemeral medium was the surface of a pond.

      I think most of us would still rather portray someone other than ourselves, but narcissists, like the poor, we shall always have with us.


  3. kathryningrid
    Apr 06, 2014 @ 22:53:15

    It was *almost* self-explanatory. Thank goodness you’re here to fill in the blanks. 🙂


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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