Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

"Sleeping Beauties" in English and Dutch

When the New Oxford American Dictionary selected unfriend as its 2009 Word of the Year, Oxford University Press senior lexicographer Christine Lindberg was quick to point out that the verb long predates the Facebook era. As she explained in an NPR interview, the Oxford English Dictionary has a citation for unfriend from 1659. "I think it's a remarkable resurrection," Lindberg told NPR. "In a way, I look at unfriend as the Sleeping Beauty of 2009 words." Now it appears that the Dutch language has its own Sleeping Beauty... or should that be Rip Van Winkle?

The Van Dale dictionary group and Pers newspaper organized an online contest for Dutch Word of the Year, with more than 20,000 visitors choosing among ten candidates. The winner, as announced in December, was ontvrienden, the equivalent to English unfriend or defriend. (Dutch speakers are clearly just as tuned in to social media as Anglophones: mirroring the American Dialect Society selection of tweet as Word of the Year, the Dutch language association Onze Taal chose twitteren as their 2009 word.)

When the victory of ontvrienden was publicized, Dutch researchers hit the books and determined that this word, referring to the removal of "friends" on Facebook and the Dutch social networking site Hyves, is just as old as the English word unfriend, if not older. Ontvrienden, it turns out, can be found in the massive Dutch historical dictionary Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal with citations all the way back to 1626. (The WNT is the largest print dictionary in the world, consisting of nearly 50,000 pages in 43 volumes. The latest print edition of the OED has a mere 21,730 pages in 20 volumes, though the revision project that is currently underway should expand it to roughly the same size as the WNT.)

The WNT entry (written in 1892) defines ontvrienden as "to take away one's friends" or "to make into an enemy." The Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad reports:

The entry quotes references dating from 1626 and 1658. One is a reference to the infamous courtesan of Lais, a woman so beautiful — and sexually available — that she drew pupils away from a famous philosopher, "defriending" him in the old-fashioned sense of the word. "Today you can defriend someone. In the past, you were defriended," said Wouter van Wingerden, a linguistic consultant with the Society for the Dutch Language.

The other reference is found in Psalm 88:8, translated in the King James Bible as "Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me." The Dutch version quoted in the Woordenboek might be close to 400 years old but it is definitely more concise. It reads 'Mijn vrienden hebt ghy my ont-vrindt,' which translates to "My friends thou hast defriended."

The word fell into disuse after the 17th century, perhaps because the Netherlands had few friends left. By 1672, the young Dutch republic found itself at war with France, England, and the dioceses of Cologne and Munster.

(Note that this English-language report opts to translate ontvrienden as defriend rather than unfriend. Either will do: as I noted in November when NOAD made its Word of the Year selection, both unfriend and defriend have been used interchangeably online since 2001, originally among members of the LiveJournal community.)

Let's compare the 17th-century Dutch references with the contemporaneous English citation for unfriend in the OED:

1659 FULLER App. Inj. Innoc. III. xxxjb, I hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Unfriended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.

That comes from a letter by English church historian Thomas Fuller to Peter Heylin, appended to Fuller's book The Appeal of Injured Innocence. (You can see the letter reprinted here.) Fuller's usage is quite similar to that of the Dutch examples, with unfriending understood as the process of dissolving a friendship. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this use of unfriend actually represents a "loan translation" of ontvrienden, given how close relations between England and Holland were back then. (Close but not always so amiable, given the intermittent trade wars between the two countries.) And it's only fitting that the lexical borrowing is now flowing the other way, from English to Dutch.

The revival of these words by the Facebook generation goes to show how flexible the reversative prefix (un- in English, ont- in Dutch) can be, creating verbs that work just as well in the 21st century as they did in the 17th century. But I think that a better metaphor than Sleeping Beauty is Rip Van Winkle, the title character in Washington Irving's famous short story, who takes a twenty-year nap. Van Winkle, as his name suggests, is of Dutch descent, living in a mostly Dutch village in the Catskill Mountains of New York. What better way to celebrate 400 years of Anglo-Dutch interaction, a cross-linguistic relationship that has resiliently withstood unfriending?


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. 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:

Wednesday January 20th 2010, 2:22 PM
Comment by: Becky C.
What a fun article. I'm smiling as I write. I have always loved to read and have been intrigued by etymology, but this and VT articles like it have made my favorite passtimes just plain fun.
Friday January 22nd 2010, 12:04 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Fascinating to learn that a word that was more often used in recent years, and for this very reason appearing as new, has a history of hundreds of years, a history so much more interesting, as the increased or decreased use of the word is intertwined with political or social reasons.
I also found that I like the word between in its older form betwixt, and always wondered when such a change occurred and why.

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Going Dutch
- 23 Comments
Anglo-Dutch rivalry led to some pejorative "Dutch" terms in English.
These days we're unfriending, unfollowing, and unfavoriting.
The Un-Believable Un-Verb
- 4 Comments
Further reflections on the endlessly adaptable "un-" prefix.
The New Oxford American Dictionary chose "unfriend"... or is it "defriend"?