Unfriending a friend: Is it really so unfriendly?

by Mellissa Martinez

In the wake of the recent election, it was impossible to avoid the unrelenting political commentary on Facebook. Yes, there were thoughtful posts from Romney supporters and appropriate celebratory messages from fellow Obama faithful, but the overwhelming overload of grumbling took much of the fun out of Facebook. My homepage was filled for days with morose, sour-grapes predictions and, to be fair, overzealous winners rubbing salt in fresh wounds.

The post that shocked me most came from a former schoolmate. After a long diatribe of disappointment, she requested that all Obama supporters “kindly unfriend her.” According to her, she was responding to a similar request from a Democrat. Although she had been my ‘friend’ for most of the year and I enjoyed her family pictures, her request was surprisingly easy to satisfy. A click of the button and our ‘friendship’ was over.

Before the 2004 launching of Facebook, I would have been truly saddened by the loss of a ‘friend.’ At that time, a ‘friend’ was a person whom I favored over others. We often had things in common with our friends and enjoyed spending time with them. Many of us even managed to have friends with different political convictions. In 2005, when ‘friend’ transitioned from a noun to a verb, its use skyrocketed. At a bar, at work, at a coffee shop, it became common to hear, “I’ll friend you on Facebook.”

‘Friend’ was around long before the inception of Facebook. In fact, the word has always enjoyed much popularity in the English language. The Quakers have used ‘friend’ to define church members since the 1600s and Lucille Ball famously championed her compassionate group, Friends of the Friendless, in the 1950s. The 1980s gave us the hybrid ‘frenemy’ and, of course, Friends was the title of the extremely popular 1990s television show. Aside from pop-culture, the word appears in classic combinations like ‘boyfriend,’ ‘girlfriend’ and ‘befriend.’ ‘Friend’ has been adopted and altered since the time of Old English, but nothing could have prepared us for the change it’s currently experiencing.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not one to lament language change. In fact, the semantic shift occurring right under our noses gives us a first-hand view of how words can take on an entirely new meaning. Imagine that at one time ‘awful’ meant ‘full of awe’ and ‘terrific’ meant ‘something that inspires terror.’ The word ‘friend’ comes from the Proto-Germanic frijojanan, ‘to love.’ Now that ‘friend’ is expanding to include casual relationships, people we knew years ago, met once on vacation or those who we profoundly disagree with, it’s quite feasible that in the future we might say with a melancholic tone, “Remember when we used to love our friends?”

As my much younger sister pointed out, friends on Facebook are like fellow swimmers in a community pool. You occasionally get poked by them and continue to politely smile because you could potentially know them. If they really offend you or poke too hard, you can simply ‘unfriend’ them with a click of a button. They don’t even have to know about it!

In 2009, the word ‘unfriend’ debuted as Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year, beating out ‘netbook,’ ‘hashtag’ and ‘sexting.’ Although ‘unfriend’ is a brand-new verb, the word is not new. The noun ‘unfriend’ is recorded in 13th century Scottish English and was used all the way up until the 19th century to mean ‘enemy.’

This got me thinking of a potentially new Facebook group, the ‘unfriends.’ Perhaps users could put a        new spin on the old adage:?It’s best to keep your friends close and your ‘unfriends’ even closer. Since 2 negatives make a positive, maybe being unfriended by an unfriend would make people friends again? But, I digress.

I suspect that it’s only a matter of time before the new noun of the year emerges as ‘Facebook friend.’ Surely, Oxford American Dictionary is considering this confusion-solving compound. The term makes the clear distinction that you might know the person, but also may not know them at all. You saw the pictures of their last family vacation, but you haven’t spoken to them in 15 years. You should say “hi” to them on the street, but might avoid having a serious discussion about immigration, politics, religion, money, marriage or school boards. If asked, “Is that a friend?” we can simply respond “Oh, heavens no, just a Facebook friend.” It is understood.



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