Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Oxford Word of the Year: Unfriend.

Oxford University Press has chosen unfriend as its word of the year for 2009.

To unfriend is "To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook."

Christine Lindberg explains that unfriend assumes a verb sense of “friend” that is really not used (at least not since maybe the 17th century!) Altho a search for the verb forms, friended and friending bring up a couple million hits on a major web search engine.* And the intact phrase "tried to friend" (with quotes around it) brings up almost 35 million hits.

I'd say the verb friend really is used. And it's no secret. There has been lots of discussion about the verbing of friend for quite a while now. A lot of fear regarding anthimeria. Some people think these functional shifts are a sign of language anarchy. Except of course when Shakespeare does it. Then it's a sign genius. But we have no business trying to out-Shakespeare Shakespeare.

But let's see what commentary in reaction to unfriend we can roll our eyes at. To the TV!

Keith Olbermann commented on last night's show (Nov 17):

Altho the youngsters on the staff have informed me that defriend is the more common term for that. So there might be another vote on this.

Those youngsters that are constantly telling their parents what's cool and what's not, are often… not so cool.

Perhaps Olbermann's resident Hipper Youth prefer defriend for some reason. Maybe they see de- as a prefix indicating an act of reversal, and un- as a prefix indicating the withholding of a quality or state (read tangent here). But whatever their preference or their reason for it, I'm not sure there's reason to believe them that defriend is more common.

Our (marginally) trusty search engines offer up the following numbers.**

Search engine 1
  • unfriend: 5,890,000
  • defriend: 1,070,000

    Search engine 2
  • unfriend: 5,330,000
  • defriend: 218,000

    Search engine 3
  • unfriend: 297,000
  • defriend: 28,200

    Search engine 4 (which refused to exclude "Oxford")
  • unfriend: 138,000
  • defriend: 24,000

    This is a quick and sloppy survey. But I stand by it as evidence that people who don't observe language systematically, or with the tiniest bit of investigation, are bound to throw around worthless opinions about it. 'Tis Common.

    * I'm getting tired of putting that little trademark sign in.

    ** The current discussion about OUP's choice is bound to inflate numbers for unfriend and not for defriend, so I've tried to correct for that but searching only for instances that don't also mention Oxford. This has played with the numbers some, actually increasing the hits when I exclude "Oxford" from some of the searches, but the relative hits are still definitely in favor of unfriend.


    1. Not really noted here is this is all just marketing for OUP, and whatever the actual stats are for "unfriend" (et al.), _their_ point is to generate a bunch of buzz. Which they've certainly been successful at.

      And which is fine. If people can figure out how to get lexicography into the evening news, so much the better.

    2. FYI: "Disfriend" turned up 1890 hits on Google. I like it.

    3. How about "forfriend," with "for-" as in "forgo": away, apart, off?

      Heaven forfend I should forfriend you, mon ami.

    4. I saw a bulletin on MSN that proclaimed this announcement, and knew that you would soon be including it on your blog. :) I am really noticing nowadays how anyone can stick the prefix "un" in front of any word (Nouns, adjectives, etc) and--LOOK--instantaneous negative! Unnice. Unwound.

    5. am i that predictable dawn? ;)

      fritinancy, i really like that prefix. it seems so much more… formidable.

      and that's a good point mike. when marketing makes these choices, watercooler potential is really important. what can people talk about easily? what's likely to snag the attention. i didn't pause too long to think about all the reasons for the choice. there are certainly ostensible reasons and other deeper reasons.

      good luck with that, casey.

    6. The marketing has worked: I've looked in two different versions of the OED this evening since reading this blog post.

      This was partly because I'm so out of touch I didn't notice that 'friend' was becoming a verb.

      Now I realise I've been going around (probably making a fool of myself in front of younger, cooler people) talking about 'befriending' people on facebook.

      I suppose I shall have to join the herd and buy myself this new OED for Christmas.

    7. I really like "friend" as a verb, because you friend people you've never even heard of, let alone met, on Facebook. "Befriending" someone still seems, to me, to require some form of actual, you know, friendship.


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