Self-owns aren’t just limited to the world of political intrigue, although that’s certainly where some of the most cringeworthy examples are found. Irate men trying to humiliate large corporations by burning their Nikes and throwing Gillette razors in the toilet in response to calculated brand marketing choices? Self-own. Odell Beckham Jr. losing it on the field and punching a sideline kicking net, only to get hit back? Self-own. Elon Musk calling a cave rescuer a “pedo guy” (and later doubling down with the taunt “I fucking hope he sues me”), only to actually get sued for defamation by the rescuer? Self-own.
The self-own did not materialize out of nowhere. Its parent concept “own” has long been a hallmark of internet conflict, stemming from ’90s hacker slang describing the act of cracking open the virtual backdoor of a machine, seizing total control of another person’s property. “Owning someone isn’t just about taking his things; it’s about diminishing him as a person,” Amanda Hess writes in the New York Times Magazine. To own (or to “pwn,” as mid-2000s gamers typed) is to utterly dominate. Attach the prefix self-, and the word becomes humiliatingly reflexive, a lunge that ends in a fall flat on the face.