Selfie And Other Words Ending In –ie

Guest Post

How long ago do you think the first selfie was taken? 

Was it five years ago or ten? Could it have been closer to 20? I’m afraid if you guessed any of those dates you are way off. The first selfie was taken all the way back in 1839, which is more like 180 years ago.

The camera at the time was so slow that the photographer, a gentleman named Robert Cornelius, didn’t have to hold it at arm’s length at all. Instead, as explained on PetaPixel, he simply took the lens cap off, put himself in the frame, waited for the required minute and then put the lens cap back on.

Of course, it wasn’t called a selfie at the time. That was just a ‘self-portrait’.

The word ‘selfie’ only entered the common lexicon about 160 years later. In 2002, a young man by the name of Nathan Hope wrote about why he had several stitches in his lip on an online forum: ‘Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer (sic) and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.’

That was how a word was first recorded and how a young man went into the history book – unable to lift his feet over steps while drunk and spell the word ‘over’ while sober. What a way to be remembered! At the same time, Oscar Wilde did say, ‘There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,’ so perhaps he’s rather proud of his scar today.

Australians are not alone in doing this. The –ie suffix, is, according to, a noun-forming ending, which makes all the words it is added to informal, and it often (but not only) notes endearment.

It is often used for personal names, common nouns and adjectives, such as:

  • Billy
  • Susie
  • Birdie
  • Doggie
  • Granny
  • Sweetie
  • Tummy
Recently, however, the tone has changed slightly with more modern coinages lacking this endearing quality, with such words as ‘cabbie’, ‘hippy’, ‘groupie’ and ‘rookie’ apparently not having inherited this trait.

The roots

At the same time, nobody really seems to know where this practice originated. The says, ‘One of the etymological mysteries of contemporary English historical linguistics is the origin of the diminutive suffix -y, -ie, which first appeared during the Middle English Period.

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the morpheme derives from English renderings of Old French names like Davi, Mathe (i.e., Davy, Mathy), “which have the appearance of being pet forms of David, Mathou” …  However, as Marchand (1968: 298) objects, “‘For whom?’ we naturally ask. When there was no suffix and accordingly no possibility of hypocoristic interpretation of the final -y, the termination was hardly capable of being transferred to other names.’

You get a gold star if you follow all of that. Basically, they say that though there seems to be some commonality with French, it isn’t clear that the suffix originated there as it wasn’t used in the same way. They then argue that perhaps it came from Scottish, though it did not start out as having this endearing quality there.

So what about that other –ie word we keep hearing, the zombie?

That word came to us by a completely different route, totally unrelated to the ‘ie’ suffix. That is why there are no ‘zoms’ walking around.

The word ‘zombie’ is one of those great examples where English has borrowed shamelessly from another tongue. In this case, the word has two roots in the West African language of Kikongo, where the word ‘nzambi’ means ‘god’ and the word ‘zumbi’ means ‘fetish’.

The word entered the English language by way of Haiti, where it was connected to voodoo magic. From there it spread throughout western society by way of cinema and popular fiction. That has to be a better way for it to spread than bites and scratches, right?

So both words come from completely different roots and routes but still have the same ending.


It is true. English can be hard sometimes, as well as strange and often confusing. For example, why are there so many words that are pronounced differently than they are written? At the same time, it’s such an interesting language with all its outside influences and internal idiosyncrasies.

It’s an adventure not just into the way words and sentences are formed, but into the very history of the language, which, because of its globe-trotting nature, is more varied than most. I hope I have managed to give you a little taste of that in the paragraphs above, where we’ve explored both the ‘ie’ suffix, as well as one of the thousands of borrowed words – like ‘tsunami’, ‘schadenfreude’ and ‘smorgasbord’ – that suffuse it. If you want to know more, be sure to check out the other posts on this site!

Source for image

 by Patrick Cole. Patrick is an entrepreneur and freelancer. He is also a contributing blogger for several websites. Patrick loves self-education and rock music. Connect with Patrick via  Facebook,  Google+  and  Twitter

Posted on: 10th June 2016