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Time to “Unfriend” the OED?

November 18, 2009

As I reported yesterday–admittedly in a tweet–the social networking parlance “unfriend” is the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2009.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that per se grammatical and linguistic snobbery doesn’t do much to advance the OED’s purposive cause.  Restricting its content to words that Antonin Scalia would use because the Founding Fathers used them would be an awful sound strategy for advancing overall human understanding of the English language as it stands today.  Furthermore, there’s no doubting sometimes despicable words enter the English language through force of common use (e.g., “meh,” “sexting,” “staycation”), and a dictionary should reflect the actual landscape of speech.  At their best, some made-up or reinvented words are able to comment profoundly on the state of discourse generally, but such commentary usually operates by virtue of the fact that the word is absurd or made up to begin with.

However, “unfriend” would perturb your average militant grammarian–George Orwell comes to mind, in particular–because the usage turns a noun into a verb through a clunky negative.  Of course, turning nouns into verbs are is a practice more condemnable for using stale imagery and meaning to blunt the impact of the word.  Words like “unfriend,” by using a common and known root, inhibit the mind from having to mentally process what the writer/speaker is actually intending to communicate and vice versa.  As Orwell himself put it in his seminal Politics and the English Language:

By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.

This trend is especially prevalent today in the pitch-intensive world of “Web 2.0” and “netrepreneurship.”  Orwell’s diatribe against political language could easily describe the cacophonous sound of Silicon Valley pitch-men using the same buzz words about “teh Internets”–or “the cloud” these days I suppose–to make it seem like they have the next big thing in store for some lucky venture capitalist:

As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

Does “unfriend” evoke the emotional response that the activity it signifies should come with? Does the word adequately communicate the rite of actively demanding that one cease to receive information from a prior acquaintance?  In some contexts, “unfriend” may appropriately describe the mere “undo” nature of the activity.  But by virtue of its anointed status as the chosen word for the activity, “unfriend” undoubtedly will be straddling too much conceptual ground (e.g., describe the return of an engagement ring, perhaps?), and therein lies the problem.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    November 18, 2009 5:26 pm

    fyi, the word “unfriend” has its first recorded usage back in the 1600’s, and was defined in much the same way as it is now…

  2. Ariel Farrar permalink
    November 19, 2009 11:17 am

    A quick comment — unfriend does not perturb me, as I see it as a… (sort of) portmanteau/conflation of “un-” and “befriend.” Also, one can be “unfriendly.” As a noun, I actually like the work “unfriend.” (shrug) Thought I’d leave a comment and say hi. 🙂

  3. SlickRicks permalink
    November 19, 2009 12:58 pm

    Hey Ariel!
    I can definitely agree that the word itself is not egregious as it is just one variation in the myriad bastard children that make up the English language. My concern is more directed at the likely future conflating of Internet lingo with real-life events that evoke very different sets of imagery and emotional responses that might have otherwise been associated with more precise language and usage. Moreover, I think I just find the word emblematic of the overall trend of diminished verbosity in the vernacular, and pride in that, which is just somewhat depressing.

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