Facebook 2.0: You Say Unfriend, I Say Defriend
Anyone rooting about for signs and portents this week will have had an easy go of it. Two Maine firefighters, in separate incidents, are arrested for arson. Sarah Palin launches a "book" tour. A mysterious snake-like creature is sighted on a Pennsylvania road. The President bows to an Asian emperor. New Carrie Prejean sex tapes emerge. The movie 2012 breaks box-office records. $40,000 worth of rare coins turn up at a Catholic shrine.
No shabby list there — but the real winner emerged on Wednesday, when the editors of the Oxford New American Dictionary named unfriend their 2009 Word of the Year.
The listing, according to the Oxford University Press blog, will look like this:
"unfriend – verb – To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook. As in, 'I decided to unfriend my roommate on Facebook after we had a fight.'"
A waggish headline-writer at CBS News offered this spin on the announcement: Removing Someone from Facebook Best Reflects Mood of the Year. </rueful smile>
I suppose one could take a sober view of this. One Dr. Irene Levine at Psychology Today made a run at it. "Dumping a true friend — online or off — isn't so easy," she admonished, "because it raises the risk of collateral damage."
By the same token, overuse of euphemisms like collateral damage probably raises the risk of getting unfriended.
No doubt there are linguistic purists somewhere (assuming such people still exist) who are properly horrified by this sort of thing. If so, I find scant evidence of it around the web. Maybe they've given up the English language for lost and switched to Urdu or something. (Hearing text used as a verb may have pushed them over the edge.) Or perhaps they regard with scorn any lesser authority than the almighty O.E.D. In any case, the only quibble I've run across with the Oxford editors' decision comes from the inner cubicles of the technorati, where a small but articulate contingent argues for an alternative term, defriend, as the verb of choice.
"Defriend has a more appropriate feel," writes David Krell, Esq., a purveyor of something called legal writing services, "if the situation is bothersome, annoying, or serious. For example, a constant, unsolicited, and unwanted barrage of Instant Messages and E-Mails, may cause defriending." Though again, so may a barrage of superfluous commas and needless caps.
Personally, I enjoy this kind of rough-and-tumble lexicography. It pleases me to think that, though the world may be going to Hell — see above, Sarah Palin's "book" tour — the English language is still growing and morphing (verb - to change or cause to change smoothly from one image to another by small gradual steps using computer animation techniques), ceaselessly generating fresh segments of semantic DNA.
Most parents, I suppose, can cite examples of wonderful, unexpected coinages by young children. My son Tristan, being tucked into bed, would complain if there was a peek in his blankets (noun - a gap allowing chilly night air to infiltrate). My daughter Callie once tearfully confessed to having by-mistakely broken a bowl. Such perfectly apt expressions are a sign, I think, that the fledgling orator has grasped the essence of the thing: the mysterious, protean entity we call language, which refuses to hold still long enough to be enclosed in a book (or encoded in a database).
One of my students at Watershed has been threatening lately to smack some cabbages. I cannot confidently tell you what he means. Though he does seem like the sort of person who, if you want any cabbages smacked, would be just the man for it.
One of the runners-up for Word of the Year was sexting. I will leave you to surmise what that means. Another was teabagging, which lately has acquired a political connotation in addition to its older, erotic one. (It is never used, as far as I can tell, in any context related to actual tea.) Zombie bank, funemployed, choice mom, hashtag, and (speaking of the end of the world) death panel were also shortlisted (verb - to put something on a final list of candidates).
Another student has begun advising me on the tone and substance of this blog. "For God's sake," she told me yesterday, "don't do anything about Thanksgiving, unless you're going to be really snarky." (Adjective - (of a person, words, or a mood) sharply critical; cutting; snide.)
Fuggeddaboudit. That's like, so next week.