How Do You Say “Selfie” in Spanish? You Don’t. Until Now.

A Columbia Student's Neologism Catches On

The first selfie ever, by Robert Cornelius, daguerreotype, 1839  (Library of Congress.

The first selfie ever, an 1839 daguerreotype by Robert Cornelius (Library of Congress).

For Columbia University student Mike Murphy, the Chainsmokers’ #Selfie was an unlikely muse. While he and his friends crowded around a computer to mock the outrageous music video that comments on an equally outlandish fad, Murphy had a light-bulb moment: he would use selfies as the backdrop for his Spanish project. However, he quickly encountered an issue—after a series of Google searches and several visits to his professor’s office hours, he still couldn’t find a word for “selfie” in the Spanish language.

So he created one.

The term selfie itself wasn’t coined until 2002, and it became an official member of the English vocabulary in 2013, when the Oxford English Dictionary dubbed it the “word of the year.” However, the concept behind the “selfie” is nothing new. Shot in 1839, Robert Cornelius’ self-portrait was one of the first photographs of a human being, and ever since, people have been captivated by the idea of capturing their own image on camera. Now, the selfie as conceived by mass culture is a product of the technological age, when everyone has an iPhone and social media is the new social life.

“It’s so easy to do nowadays,” Mr. Murphy said, observing the obvious. “You can pull out your phone, snap a selfie, and post it in a matter of seconds.”

When Mr. Murphy’s Spanish instructor, Juan Pablo Jiménez-Caicedo, asked his class to venture to the city’s museums in search of Hispanic art, he also noted that some galleries don’t allow photography indoors. He proposed that his students take selfies in front of museum entrances to prove that they visited the collections. The excursions would culminate in a final video project, Mr. Jiménez-Caicedo explained. Mr. Murphy decided that his theme for the photomontage would revolve around the selfies he garnered at each location, from the Cloisters to statues in Central Park.

As Mr. Murphy looked for a title to his film, he rejected the Spanglish trend of using English terms to discuss technology in Spanish works. “Spanglish is fine, but I think as a proper linguist, you have to use the word or create the word in the right language,” he said. Mr. Jiménez-Caicedo confirmed to Mr. Murphy that he would have to use his basic knowledge of Spanish from two semesters of study to construct a plausible translation of selfie. Though a synonym, menina, exists, it is an esoteric allusion to Velazquez’s Las Meninas and has not  infiltrated mass culture. So, after looking through dictionaries for variations of self-portrait, self-picture, and similar turns of phrase, he came up with the feminine noun, autofotito, a “mini-self-portrait.”

“I started laughing because when he said, ‘I made up the word,’ I loved that,” Mr. Jiménez-Caicedo recalled . “I encourage my students to be linguists. I call them linguists in the making.”

While most technology has originated in the English-speaking world over the past few decades, globalization has allowed outside nations to consume new gadgets from the United States and Europe. Though academics have tried to respond to the influx of technological terminology by inventing parallels in Spanish, new developments are constant, and the linguistic community can’t keep up. Some vocabulary, like “Internet” and “la red,” is used interchangeably. Other words, like “selfie,” are still looking for their sister terms. And right now, verbs like “twitear” and “postear” float around in conversation while major Hispanic publications use English terms in print to describe technological innovations.

A recent Colombian news item featured a drug lord who was caught and imprisoned thanks to a selfie that his girlfriend posted on Facebook. Just like in the U.S., international Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with duck faces and images at an arm’s length or in bathroom mirrors. The selfie phenomenon has defied borders and requires global recognition.

With his new word, Mr. Murphy is giving the Hispanic population a communicative device while combatting technology’s impact on Castilian Spanish. With the help of Mr. Jiménez-Caicedo, he intends to incorporate autofotito into the Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española, where it will gain universal acknowledgment as part of the Spanish lexicon.

“I think that it would be cool for a non-Hispanic Spanish student to have created a word,” Mr. Murphy said. “It shows my respect for the language, and my dedication to learning it, and my effort to contribute something to it.”