Word Play

To 'unfriend' is not as new as it may seem

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

The Facebook phenomenon is intriguing, but I have a tough enough time keeping up with flesh-and-blood friendships. I am therefore no more likely to accept an invitation to be someone's electronic friend than I was to say yes when Mister Rogers asked me to be his neighbour. A collateral benefit is that I am less likely to find out that I have been "unfriended."

Story continues below ad

Users of the Facebook website are deep-sixing friendships at such a rate that the New Oxford American Dictionary , a U.S. cousin of the more venerable Oxford English Dictionary , has just named "unfriend" as its 2009 word of the year.

Christine Lindberg, a senior lexicographer for Oxford University Press's U.S. dictionary program, says "unfriend," which means to remove someone as a "friend" from a social networking site, "has both currency and potential longevity."

This may be, but the dictionary's 2009 short list shows no bias against impermanence. Among the also-rans is the flash-in-the-pan word "birther," "a conspiracy theorist who challenges President [Barack]Obama's birth certificate." Another is "intexticated," defined as "distracted because texting on a cellphone while driving a vehicle." A word for that phenomenon would be useful, but "intexticated"'s pun on intoxicated is too forced to live.

"Unfriend" has popped up before. Thomas Fuller used it in 1659, in The Appeal of Injured Innocence : "I hope, sir, that we are not mutually Unfriended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us."

It was common in the mid-1500s to "friend" someone - to act as that person's chum - but it was even more common to befriend someone, from the Old English sense of the prefix "be," to make. "Unbefriended" receives several citations in the OED , beginning in 1629, and there is a lone sighting of "unbefriend" from 1884: "And will not unbefriend the enterprising any more than the timid."

The noun "friend" derives from the Old English freond , which may be traced back by way of the Germanic languages to the Indo-European root prai , which meant to love. The same root led to the modern word "free." The idea was that people who loved and were loved by the other members of their families were distinct from servants, who were outside this circle of love, and, as the word developed, were not free.

Fortunately, the consequences of being unfriended in the Facebook age are no more serious than being unable to look at the latest snapshots of someone's pets.

Collective annoyance

Language changes, and when a change is well advanced it is bad for the health to rail against the new reality. Still, it hurts to see a plural pronoun refer back to a collective pronoun that takes a singular verb, as in, "Everyone has their own way of doing things."

When annoyance strikes, I turn to the latest reference books to see whether this commingling of plural and singular is growing in acceptance. In the revised third edition of Garner's Modern American Usage , which appeared in September, Bryan A. Garner notes that Richard Grant White was wrestling with the problem back in 1884.

The use of "everybody," White wrote in Every-Day English , "is made difficult by the lack of a singular pronoun of dual sex. … Nevertheless, this is no warrant for the conjunction of every and them."

In 2009, Garner says, the battle against "everybody has their" has been lost. "Disturbing though these developments may be to purists, they're irreversible." Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman, in their 2009 book Origins of the Specious , hop from one foot to the other. "We may be witnessing a seismic change," they write, but many still condemn the practice of using the singular "they." Now I'm annoyed that I don't know how deeply annoyed I'm reasonably allowed to be.

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeArts

More Stories