Perhaps you’ve scrolled through social media and seen someone comment: Classic self-own. Greatest self-own of the year so far. Olympics-level self-own. Hall-of-fame self-own.
This is both a self-own and a universal truth https://t.co/xbHhqovnnL
— John Haltiwanger (@jchaltiwanger) January 30, 2020
What are these self-owns, and why are they epic? To understand what self-own really means, we must first know the meaning of the slang term own.
What does it mean to own someone?
In slang, to own someone is “to totally ridicule, embarrass, or defeat” them. Make senses, right? If you completely take someone down, you’ve beat them. You’ve dominated them. It’s like you own, or “possess,” them, so absolutely are they in your control.
In the 1990s–2000s, this sense of own became especially popular among gamers. Imagine you’re playing a fighting game and you knocked out your opponent in a single blow. You could taunt them: “You got owned!” This act of ownage, as some gamers called it, is also referred to as pwn, an intentional misspelling that spread because the mistake of mistyping P for its next-door neighbor, O, was so common.
The gaming slang own is credited to hackers. Getting owned, here, is when hackers have broken into your computer—pretty humiliating in hacker-dom. But we can find slang senses of own for “dominating” someone going back all the way to the 1910s. (On a more serious note, this own appears to originate in Black English, and draws from the imagery of slavery.)
Now, what is a self-own?
We can now imagine what a self-own is: when someone inadvertently embarrassing themselves, especially by doing something that backfires on them. Maybe they contradict themselves in some spectacular way. Maybe they boast or claim something big, only to be met with some serious receipts otherwise. Maybe they are trying to take someone down, but splat—they metaphorically throw the pie in their own faces. Whatever the case, people are ready to call it out, and people are ready to find amusement in it.
Now, we can find evidence for self-own as least by 2004. The term is widely used as a noun, e.g., That was a massive self-own. It is increasingly being used as a verb, however, to refer to act of self-owning. If you want to get technical (and you better believe we do here at the dictionary), a self-own can be intransitive (not taking an object) …
I, too, have self-owned recently. pic.twitter.com/pVypDBlrdf
— Gary Branson (@GaryBranson1) January 23, 2020
… or reflexive (its object is its own subject), as in he self-owned himself. That’s a lot of self-ownage.
Self-own spreads on social media, of course
The term really took off in the mid-2010 thanks especially to, you guessed it, social media. There aren’t many places better suited to celebrate the mistakes of others, it seems, than on social media—especially when it comes politics. Tweeters are keen to point out the self-owns of everyone who has made the mistake of not fully thinking things through, from everyday folk to, more often than not, politicians.
The term self-own notably spiked in popularity in late 2018 and early 2019 in US politics. In September 2018, Texas Senator Ted Cruz attempted to attack his opponent, Beto O’Rourke, by posting a video of O’Rourke criticizing police brutality. This, however, became a win for O’Rourke, as he was met with widespread support for the video, and a self-own for Cruz, because it boosted his opponent so well. Epic fail.
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) September 21, 2018
Another prominent self-own came in January 2019. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC, for short) is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, a woman of Hispanic heritage, and a very vocal, progressive, social media-savvy leader.
On January 4, 2019, a Twitter account, @AnonymousQ17763, posted a video unearthed from AOC’s time in college. It featured her and some friends recreating the iconic dance scene from The Breakfast Club, intended to embarrass and discredit her.
— AnonymousQ1776 (@AnonymousQ17763) January 4, 2019
The video, however, was met with widespread support for AOC. A consensus was reached on the news and social media: She enjoyed dancing with her friends in college, and this only made her more likable. The congresswoman then responded with her own dance video, which earned nearly 800,000 likes. The attempt to taint AOC’s reputation through embarrassing her resulted in making her more accessible and relatable. It had the effect of raising her profile. Not quite the political bombshell @AnonymousQ17763 had been hoping for.
I hear the GOP thinks women dancing are scandalous.
Wait till they find out Congresswomen dance too! 💃🏽
Have a great weekend everyone :) pic.twitter.com/9y6ALOw4F6
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 4, 2019
Self-own cycle complete.
What are some other examples of self-own?
As we’ve seen, the phrase self-own is very prominent on social media, especially Twitter, in the context of politics. Why? For better or worse, calling people out—and relishing in their embarrassment, particularly when public figures fail in trying to get one over on another—has become a defining part of social media discourse in recent years. Add to this mix a zeitgeist of extremely heightened and divided politics, and self-own has its home.
While many instances of self-own are found in political callouts online, many people do use self-own for more personal and everyday, sometimes to bring attention to basic hypocrisy or show some welcome self-deprecation.
Every time I say a game idea, people come in and plug their games that are similar in concept. Really a great self-own on their part.
— Bad Tabletop Game Design (@BadTTRPGs) January 28, 2020
Will someone please fire up the oven and get me some spicy mustard? I'm about to eat crow after telling my students to not overthink my puzzles, yet I was told by someone I *already* solved the one I've been stumped by for the past few days.
The self-own is real, y'all.
— Mr Kilroy 🔜 @BSides Tampa (@M1sT3R_K1Lr0Y) January 25, 2020
And then there’s this classic self-own we would self-own ourselves if we left out:
In Orlando, Florida, there exists a museum of skeletons called, well, Skeletons: Museum of Osteology. At its entrance, a sign proclaims it as “America’s Largest Skeleton Museum.” This, of course, is no small feat. However, directly above that sign is an even larger one that says “America’s Only Skeleton Museum.” 🤔
If it really is the only one, then technically it is also the biggest one by default. No … bone of contention there. Only a spectacular, but lovable, self-own.
Lmao solid self own pic.twitter.com/faAjtyogsO
— Disgraced Peloton Husband (@BiffTannins) January 23, 2019