The New Oxford American Dictionary, North America’s last word on words, recently named unfriend as its word of the year. It means, in dictionary parlance, “to remove someone from a social networking site.” But you already knew this.
This annual announcement used to be a bigger deal, before all of us started using the Internet and making up words all the time. Back in the day, getting into a dictionary was an obligatory rite of passage for any word worth its vowels. Nowadays, words often skitter right past Oxford (or Webster’s or whatnot) on their way to legitimacy, and the dictionary is left playing catch-up.
In fact, lots of social networkers who delete folks from their Facebook or MySpace rosters all the time think Oxford missed the boat entirely: They defriend people: To unfriend them sounds sooooo Oct. 14th.
“Unfriend implies a complete lack—that you are absolutely not friends,” 27-year-old Jillian Quint told ABC News. “Defriend implies that you were once friends.”
Which makes me think that, in Jillian’s world, there’s probably room for both words: Lots of folks who have social networking sites have some “friends” they’ve never actually met, along with some folks they wish they never had.
For its part, dictionary publicist (who knew dictionaries needed publicists?) Lauren Appelwick tells us that “unfriend is far, far more popular,” with the word’s popularity being determined by a complex and unreleased algorithm too complex for linguistic laymen to understand. Or perhaps they just did a Google search. In my own search, unfriend brought back about 11.6 million hits; defriend a mere 188,000.
The word trumped such other linguistic newcomers as hashtag (a # sign slapped on many Twitter posts), netbook (a mini notebook computer) and my personal favorite, intexticated (driving while texting). Which goes to show you how technology is changing every aspect of our lives—including the way we talk.
When you think about it, technology and language have quite a bit in common. Technology today, really, is all about communication, and the written language was at the bleeding edge of technology around 3,000 B.C. Both are pretty indispensable, and both (like truculent teens or overgrown vegetable gardens) can get unruly. You never know, exactly, where either will go in the future—other than somewhere completely unexpected.
I mean, who knows how we’ll be communicating in the future. What sorts of words will Oxford be honoring five years from now? Will we still be blogging and Facebooking and Tweeting in 2019? Will we be using language at all? Or will we just have mini Wi-Fi hot-spots embedded in our noggins, allowing us to regurgitate our thoughts directly into one another’s brains?
For my part, I hope we’ll never realize that last part. Language is a beautiful thing, and I’d hate to lose it. Plus, if we get to the point where we can listen to each other’s thoughts all the time, unfriending could be a really big headache.