Thursday, 19 November 2009


Oxford University Press has chosen unfriend, meaning "To remove someone as a 'friend' on a social networking site such as Facebook" as its word of the year for 2009.

The OUP word of the year announcement has nothing to do with whether the word is new or not; it's based on its "currency and potential longevity". But simply because I can, I looked into how old it is. And like so many other words the kids today are using to destroy our language, there's nothing new about unfriend, at least in the past participle:

Will you with those infirmities she owes,
Vnfriended, new adopted to our hate,
Dow'rd with our curse, and stranger'd with our oath,
Take her or, leaue her.
- Shakespeare, King Lear I i

I hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Unfriended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.
- Thomas Fuller, The appeal of injured innocence III. xxxjb, 1659

All quotes I could find are of the past participle. It's possible that unfriended was derived from friended, the past participle of the verb friend (which dates from 1225). In that case, unfriend as a verb, as in "I decided to unfriend my roommate on Facebook", really is new.

As a noun it's even older:

We sollen wende and wid ham fihten, slean houre onfrendes
(We should go and fight with them, slay our unfriends [enemies])
Layamon's Brut, c1275


Anonymous said...

But surely it is not terribly controversial to claim that the majority of modern 'unfriend' users are wholly unaware and uninfluenced by the above prior usages? Can a word really be said to be old if its original use had entirely passed out of the spoken tradition by the time it was coined/resurrected?

Don't get me wrong; it's entertaining and interesting to see these citations. But I fear I would think it churlish if someone said to these folks, 'Ah ha, it's actually not a new word at all! It's very old! You messed up!'

goofy said...

I agree. I'm just saying "cool, look how old the word is."

Anonymous said...

Cool! :)

Stan said...

Thank you for digging up these quotes. It seems the word's longevity is already assured.