Old words, new meanings

In 2009, the Oxford English Dictionary made “unfriend” the word of the year.    The word is so new, in fact, that my electronic dictionary doesn’t have it.  The entry it gives for “unfriended” is:

without friends : murder left innocent people bereft and unfriended.

It further advises that this use is “poetic.”  The spell checker I’m using now doesn’t even have it; “unfriend” is underlined as misspelled.

Of course, the above sense is not the one intended by the Oxford English Dictionary.  As everyone knows, “unfriend” comes from Facebook, the name of a website that is now its own verb:  Ads on the subway implore us to Facebook us.  Facebook makes available to its users the possibility of linking to another user; the linking relationship was, of course, one that involved mutual consent.  The link established a “Facebook friend.”

A Facebook friend is not the same as a real friend; we might be Facebook friends but not friends in real life.  Notice we still maintain a distinction between the real and the virtual.  Hence, a new social category was born: the Facebook friend.

With the new social category came the need for a new word to express that category, and, in particular, the need for a way to express the establishment of the Facebook friend relation.  A new “semantic niche” had been created and, just as in ecology, something was going to come and consume the new resource.  The language already has “befriend” to denote the establishment of a real (not virtual) friendship.

So people started using “friend” as a verb with the special meaning “establish a reciprocal Facebook link with another person.”  A glance at Google’s timeline for the word “friending” shows the explosion in its use:

A timeline for the new verb "friending"

The growth of "friending"

The timeline is, of course, a histogram; but it suffices to show how “friending” has exploded.

There’s an interesting microeconomic note here.  The growth of “friend” is possible, first, because there is a new semantic niche that was not occupied but, second, because speakers started coordinating around this new meaning.  If someone said, “I friended Joe,” I knew what they meant and I knew, in particular, that they hadn’t befriended Joe.  The whole population coordinated around the new usage; this sort of mutual tacit coordination is the very stuff of Thomas Schelling‘s work:  See is book Micromotives and Macrobehavior for lots of examples.

Going back to “befriend,” notice that this word is entrenched in the meaning “become friends,” a semantic niche that it has occupied for years.  The new “friend” has no hope of displacing “befriend” in this niche.  Interestingly, “befriend” didn’t move in to occupy the “Facebook friend” niche; instead, we did what we so often do: We verbed an existing noun.

New technologies are opening up a way of studying this process.  First, it’s making new things available that we need words for: iPods and other mp3 players, smartphones, text messaging (“texting” which figures in Meaningful Games) and so on.  But it’s also giving us new ways of studying the process.  We can actually watch words spread into semantic niches and, sometimes, compete with each other for priority in the niche.  A new field—social ecology—is possible.

Back to “unfriend.”  It happens that “unfriended” already has a kind of weak existence, as my electronic dictionary shows.  The new social relationship, Facebook friend, is often transitory.  Deleting a Facebook friendship is not nearly as weighty an action as breaking a friendship!  We needed a new word for dissolving a Facebook friendship and, voila!, “unfriend” immediately suggests itself due to regular English morphology; its weak, unentrenched meaning is now gone (if it was ever there) and the new use caused the frequency of “unfriend” to explode:

timeline for unfriend

A timeline for the frequency of "unfriend"

Notice that “unfriend” has a long history—it has uses back to 1650—but it’s a sparse one until recently.

Another note:  There is another morphological form possible, “defriend.”  But my intuition is that this would be wrong.  If I defriend someone, I would have to eliminate all his Facebook friends.  Thus, “I unfriended Joe” means I removed him from my Facebook friends but “I defriended Joe” means that I somehow got access to his Facebook account and removed all his Facebook friends.  Compare “defriend” with “deforest.”

The grammar has a place here: it makes forms available. But the workhorse here is the social decision-making that enlivens the forms and endows them with real meaning.

As a footnote, Creeper the Hamburger Pimp has his own Facebook page.  I’d friend him, but I’m not on Facebook.


About robinlclark

I am Professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. My interests include a microeconomic approach to linguistic meaning, game theory as applied to linguistic pragmatics, language and strategic interaction, and a neuroeconomic approach to linguistic decision-making.
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3 Responses to Old words, new meanings

  1. Pingback: Entrenchment: “Befriend” vs. “friend” | Meaningful Games

  2. Katrin says:

    Try using free online spell check tool. Most of online tools have many dictionaries including technical and medical ones. Plus they are updated regulary so such word as “unfriend” should be there.

  3. Oh my goodness! Amazing article dude! Thanks, However I am
    experiencing difficulties with your RSS. I don’t know
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    Anyone that knows the solution will you kindly respond?

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