Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘unfriend’

a new age (21st century)

by David Crystal

In 2009 the New Oxford American Dictionary chose unfriend as its Word of the Year. It meant ‘to remove someone from a list of contacts on a social networking site such as Facebook’. A minor controversy followed. Some argued that the verb should be defriend. But the use of un- was already well established in the terminology of reversing computer actions, with undo, unerase, undelete, unbold and many more. As a New York Times article said in 2009 (15th September), we are living in an ‘Age of Undoing’.

Unfriend also probably appealed because it feels more English, as evidenced by a history of earlier uses dating from the 16th century. Antonio describes Sebastian as ‘unguided and unfriended’ in Twelfth Night (III.iii.10). A noun (an unfriend) occurs as early as the 13th century. And in the 19th century, a member of the Society of Friends (the Quakers) could describe a non-member as an unfriend. Defriend, by contrast, had no such history, so it has been slower to take root. But both unfriend and defriend are found in the social networking world now, with unfriend almost twice as popular in 2010.

Prefixes and suffixes continue to make their presence felt in word coinages of the new millennium. We find ecogloom (‘depression about environmental progress’) and bargainous (‘relatively cheap’), overthink (‘think about something too much’) and underbudget (‘underestimate costs’), catastrophise (‘present a situation as worse than it is’) and therapise (‘provide therapy’). As technology allows us to investigate smaller and smaller entities, previously obscure prefixes such as nano- have become widespread. It is, according to some commentators, a nano-age, with a nanocosm containing nanomachines using nanomaterials on a nanoscale, and investigated by nanoscientists. Virtually any word, it seems, is going to be prefixed by nano- sooner or later.

Nano- has left micro- a long way behind, though micro- did receive a boost with the advent of micromessaging. The posting of very short entries on a blog came to be called microblogging, and when Twitter arrived in 2006, with its 140-character message limitation, it was soon being described as a microblogging site. There are microbooks, micromovies, micromusicals and microapps now. Speaking as a lexical coolhunter (a 1990s’ marketing term: ‘a monitor of cultural trends’), I wouldn’t write it off yet.

This is the final extract in a series of five taken from The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal, published by Profile and distributed by Allen & Unwin, $29.99, out now. Scroll back for ‘OK’, ‘gaggle’, ‘bodgery’ and ‘mead’.

3 thoughts on “Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘unfriend’

    • Yes, I remember being appalled when ‘unfriend’ entered the dictionary. I thought it should be ‘defriend’, too! That’s one reason I included this, because Crystal explains/justifies unfriend so well.

  1. Pingback: David Crystal on the word ‘unfriend’ (via @literaryminded) | Literarium – The Blog

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