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It’s a verb, meaning to remove a person as a “friend” on a social networking site such as Facebook.

I have Facebook friends who — subsequent to my accepting their offers of Facebook friendship — accepted jobs as publicists for elected officials. Must I “unfriend” them now to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest?

Chicago Sun-Times, 5 Sep. 2009.

It was chosen as Word of the Year 2009 by the New Oxford American Dictionary. Christine Lindberg, senior lexicographer for Oxford’s US dictionary programme, was quoted as saying “Unfriend has real lex-appeal.” She wrote in the Dictionary’s blog: “It has both currency and potential longevity. In the online social networking context, its meaning is understood, so its adoption as a modern verb form makes this an interesting choice for Word of the Year.”

The New Oxford American Dictionary’s editors have been criticised for selecting it (Frank Schell in the Chicago Tribune called it “an act of wanton barbarism”) and the word itself has gained few friends among writers (The Irish Times remarked that it was “a word that will cause lovers of the English language to wince”). The main objection to it — apart from its inelegance — is that it ought to be defriend, which is also used, which would parallel the standard English befriend. However, the Dictionary’s editors found unfriend was much more common. It is presumably modelled on terms such as unsubscribe. What makes it odd is that few verbs are created using the un- prefix and that the verb sense of friend is itself rare.

Twitter has a similar form, unfollow. This is from the Twitter concept of members who “follow” others by regularly reading their postings. If you cease to do so, you unfollow them.

Historically speaking, there’s nothing strange about unfriend. The noun was once fairly common, with evidence going back to medieval Scots. Its sense could range from of a person with whom one is not on friendly terms to a full-blown enemy. After going out of favour around 1600 it was reintroduced by Sir Walter Scott in 1814 but then disappeared again. The verb has been recorded but is very rare, though the adjective unfriended has been fairly successful for some centuries:

But I believed, niece, you had a greater sense of propriety than to have received the visits of any young man in your present unfriended situation.

The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe, 1794.

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Page created 28 Nov 2009