16 November 2009

For He Is in Dede Mervelously Frended

Yes, it's that time of year again--the time for WOTYs or should that be Ws OTY or WOTies? Last year, I was singularly unimpressed with the New Oxford American Dictionary's Word of the Year, hypermiling, which I'd never even heard before it was announced. This year's choice, unfriend, pleases me more because a) I know what it means and b) I've heard people using it, even though I'm neither enough of a Facebook power user nor enough of an unfriending bitch to use it much myself. My example sentence would be, "J unfriended me in 2006 and has blocked me on Facebook ever since."

Actually, though, although I wouldn't use the word often myself, instinctively, I find myself drawn more to defriend, which has about half as many Google hits as its more popular synonym unfriend. Linguistically speaking, unfriend is more correct because it combines the Germanic root friend with a Germanic prefix un-, whereas defriend adds the Latinate prefix de- with the Germanic root. Historically, this affix mixing is very rare: Germanic happy takes Germanic un-, whereas Latinate satisfied takes Latinate dis-. There are some exceptions, of course, and when new words enter the language, there isn't always an obvious affix for them to take--or, indeed, a universal affix for them to take, as evidenced by de-/unfriend.

My second objection was to the use of friend as a verb. "OMG, my dad tried to friend me at the weekend; ewww." Again, though, my gripe is unfounded because the OED records texts using friend as a verb as early as the 13th century. A later example comes from Robert Dudley, my favourite historical character, in 1585, "Yf the man be as he now semeth, hit were petty to loose him, for he is in dede mervelously frended."

Thirdly, if I'm going to accept friend as a verb, I prefer the prefix de- because it makes it clear that defriend is a verb, given that de- is only applied to verbs and their derivatives. Un-, meanwhile, can negate, reverse or counter-balance many parts of speech: unexciting (adj), undo (v), unease (n), unkissed (compound adj., a favourite of Mr Hector's) and so on. Unfriend could theoretically mean "remove from your social network" or something like "an enemy," albeit only in some sort of Orwellian world where Newspeak is the official language.

In conclusion, I can't find any serious objection to defriend, other than an instinctive dislike of its form, so I'll concede it is at least a better WOTY than many of its predecessors. Perhaps I'm just jealous that ToCoRo and NoMaRo still haven't got quite as much pick-up as they deserve...

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