Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

NOAD Word of the Year: "Unfriend"

The New Oxford American Dictionary has announced its Word of the Year for 2009: it's unfriend, defined as "to remove someone as a 'friend' on a social networking site such as Facebook." Readers of this space will be quite familiar with the term, as I discussed it along with similar un-verbs on Word Routes in May and then again in September as a followup to my On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, "The Age of Undoing." It's nice to feel ahead of the curve on this one, but truth be told, unfriending has been going on for many years.

The hosts of the public radio program "A Way with Words" tweeted the NOAD announcement with the snarky reaction, "Hi. Welcome to five years ago." But if you're a member of the LiveJournal community, it might feel even older than that. Way back on October 1, 2001, long before Facebook even existed, "Noël" posted a LiveJournal entry entitled "On Friending," considering the ramifications of adding acquaintances to one's "friends list" and then later dropping them:

Please note, defriending you does not mean I suddenly hate you or think less of you or that I'm no longer your friend/acquaintance, etc. I have people I know in real life who aren't on my friendslist, and conversely I've had real life friends unfriend me because they have no idea what I'm talking about. ...
I do not do knee jerk retaliatory de-friending. (Nor do I moan/bitch/complain if I've defriended your "Friends Only" journal and you've removed me-- obviously that makes sense.) If you unfriend me, I may or may not unfriend you.

It's interesting that Noël alternated freely between defriend and unfriend in her post. Both terms continued to be used on LiveJournal, and then on other social networking sites like Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook, though it does seem that the un- form is edging out the de- form these days.

NOAD's runner-up list has some terms that might feel a bit fresher to the digerati. One of the technological terms on the list is intexticated, "distracted because texting on a cellphone while driving a vehicle." That's a clear cousin of the Webster's New World selection for Word of the Year, announced two weeks ago: distracted driving.

Here's a sampling of other runners-up from NOAD:

Technology

  • hashtag: a # [hash] sign added to a word or phrase that enables Twitter users to search for tweets (postings on the Twitter site) that contain similarly tagged items and view thematic sets
  • netbook : a small, very portable laptop computer with limited memory
  • paywall : a way of blocking access to a part of a website which is only available to paying subscribers

Economy

  • freemium: a business model in which some basic services are provided for free, with the aim of enticing users to pay for additional, premium features or content
  • funemployed: taking advantage of one?s newly unemployed status to have fun or pursue other interests
  • zombie bank: a financial institution whose liabilities are greater than its assets, but which continues to operate because of government support

Environment

  • brown state: a US state that does not have strict environmental regulations
  • green state: a US state that has strict environmental regulations
  • ecotown: a town built and run on eco-friendly principles

The Word of the Year season will culminate with the most prestigious selection from the American Dialect Society at their annual meeting on January 8. If you'd like to submit your own candidates, the ADS is now accepting nominations from the public for both Word of the Year and Word of the Decade (2000-2009). You can find out more on the ADS website.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday November 17th 2009, 9:04 AM
Comment by: Ben B. (Dallas, TX)
It's "defriend" not unfriend
Tuesday November 17th 2009, 9:49 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
I don't think there is much glory to be had being "ahead" of NOAD on linguistic trends!

Brand-wise, Oxford to me indicates staid. Adding "New" and "American" to compensate doesn't tip the balance enough in the other direction.
Tuesday November 17th 2009, 10:00 AM
Comment by: Karen F. (New Castle, PA)
Ben (in Dallas) Did you read the article? He discussed both "de" and "un" friend. I'm not being mean, just thought maybe you still had sleep in your eyes.

Actually, was back in the early 60's my circle of friends would laugh and say we were "defriending" on another as a joke. I guess we were way beyond our times. lol

As for you, Ben Zimmer, I always enjoy your columns. You are the "best ever!"
Tuesday November 17th 2009, 10:12 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
Trying to keep up with new vocabulary while endeavouring to maintain correct spoken and written English, often seems like an impossible task!
Wednesday November 18th 2009, 8:16 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Keeping up with the OED may beyond our abilities, but it sure is fun! Thanks, Ben, for all your informative and compelling articles.
Thursday November 19th 2009, 9:45 AM
Comment by: JohnRDallasJr (Chicago, IL)
Last night a best friend and I seriously vowed to never "unfriend" each other. In a rather magical moment we realized we had just committed ourselves to a lifetime of mutual understanding and growth. We surprised ourselves when we realized we are quite serious. It was both humorous and galvanizing. Is it time for all forms of wedding vows to include a pledge for the couple "to never 'unfriend' each other?" Can you hear pastors, priests, rabbis and justices of the peace including this real-world step in the sacrament or process? I can. Perhaps more marriages/relationships would stay together, especially if two-way friendly communication is of better quality and more frequent through technology. If pressing career and travel schedules impede face-to-face time, Facebook and the like can bridge some gaps. Nothing replaces a physical hug, at least not yet.

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Hyping Hypallage
- 8 Comments
The Webster's New World choice for Word of the Year, "distracted driving," is an example of hypallage.
These days, everybody is "unfriending," "unfavoriting," and "unfollowing."
The Un-Believable Un-Verb
- 4 Comments
Further adventures in adding the "un-" prefix to verbs.
Last year's Word of the Year from NOAD was the eco-conscious "hypermiling."