Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Language of Social Media: "Unlike" Any Other

Earlier this week I appeared as a guest on the NPR show "Charlotte Talks" (from Charlotte, North Carolina) to talk about language in the electronic age. Callers expressed a fair amount of hand-wringing about how English usage is under fire from new modes of communication, from text-messaging to social media sites. Rather than focusing on the negative, I'd like to celebrate some of the innovative linguistic forms that have been bubbling up online.

When people think of new electronically mediated language, they tend to focus on the abbreviations like "LOL" (laugh out loud) and "OMG" (oh my God) popularized in text-messaging and instant-messaging. Or they might think of those dreaded emoticons that pepper so much of online discourse. But what about the language associated with wildly popular forums for oversharing like Twitter and Facebook?

Twitter, along with producing a telegraphic writing style for those trying to cram their thoughts into a 140-character space, has also given us a whole new vocabulary. Lexicographer Erin McKean recently provided a primer for Twitterese in the Boston Globe:

The messages are tweets; the people signed up to get them are your followers - or tweeple, or tweeps (although there are people pushing twerps and twits as the proper nomenclature).

The Twittersphere (or Twitterverse) includes both the Twitterati (or Tweetstars) who have lots and lots of followers, and those who have just a few. It even includes tworkers - people whose jobs involve using Twitter.

A twoosh is a message that fits the maximum of 140 characters exactly, without editing; there are also mistweets, retweets, and - when sent under the influence of alcohol - dweets.

Twittering too much may get you accused of Twitterhea, or cause your tweeple to unfollow you. Unfollowing might also be the punishment for other breaches of Twitiquette, such as using Twitter to send spam tweets (or speets).

All of those tw- words are particular to the Twitter subculture, but unfollowing deserves special attention. It's one of a new brand of un- words that have flourished on social media sites. One of the hallmarks of social media is the ability for users to register their interest in something they see. But what if you change your mind? Then you can always undo the action that you've made.

LiveJournal, a virtual community of bloggers and diary-keepers, has been a pioneer in this type of usage. LiveJournalers were among the first to make friend into a transitive verb to describe the act of adding someone to an online list of acquaintances. (Other social networks like MySpace and Friendster soon got in on the act too.) To remove someone from friend status requires defriending or unfriending. Either the de- or the un- prefix works as a "reversative," indicating the undoing of a reversible act (though un- seems to be winning out over de- as the preferred prefix these days).

A similar notion to friending is marking something as a favorite — say, an image that you see on the photo-sharing site Flickr — known more commonly as favoriting. Naturally, once something is favorited, you still have the ability to unfavorite it later. The content-sharing site Digg has developed its own peculiar set of verbs: if you like a link that someone has submitted, you digg it (giving it a thumbs-up). Reversing your opinion is known as undigging.

Facebook is the latest trendsetter in reversible language. If you get tagged in a photo on Facebook (so that your name is associated with that photo), you can untag yourself to avoid anyone coming across the evidence of a particularly embarrassing moment. The New York Times even devoted an entire article last year to the tagging/untagging phenomenon.

Facebook's latest innovation seems to be based on the digg/undigg model: you can choose to register your approval for someone else's status update or posted item by clicking a thumbs-up like button. The like feature is, of course, reversible, so at any time you can unlike an item you've previously liked. Note that unliking something is not the same as disliking it. In fact, Facebook does not currently have a negative complement for liking: you either like what you see or you remain neutral.

How do you feel about this proliferation of new verbs and un-verbs? Personally, I like it, but I think I'll reserve the option to unlike it in the future.

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Ben Zimmer 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:

Thursday May 7th 2009, 7:03 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I have a couple of comments, Ben, besides thanking you for bringing these new expressions to my attention.

Firstly, our existing vocab would probably have been sufficient to handle all the situations that have spawned new words (for example, 'followers') but isn't it good that people have the ingenuity and the confidence to invent new ones? And what is really great about the phenomenon is that it follows the same pattern as neologising (?) has always done, namely a *consensus* emerges as to the preferred form, but about a million times more quickly!

My second point concerns the challenge this poses to novelists. It can take a year or two from writing to publishing (in the traditional publishing industry). In view of the speed with which technological innovations and new words to describe them appear, how can the poor novelist avoid sounding (to younger readers especially) as if he or she stepped out of the Ark?
Thursday May 7th 2009, 7:36 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
New words are wonderful. I find them descriptive and usable is such a way as to eliminate lengthy explanations.

A question about word instructions from my 1940s teacher of English.
Is 'firstly' correct? Our class was told that 'first' was correct and firstly not acceptable. This had been with me all my adult life and echos of my teachers voice come to me each time I use 'firstly'.
Thursday May 7th 2009, 9:22 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I have just read a new 'un-' word in the Guardian magazine for last Saturday. Tim Dowling was writing a humorous column about the frustration experienced in supermarket queues.

"The woman in front of me had completed her purchases, and now with slow deliberation was selecting items from her shopping to be unpurchased."

I'm not suggesting 'to unpurchase' will become common usage, but it's fascinating, after what you wrote in your article, to ponder the freedom that Mr Dowling felt to invent an 'un-' word for comic effect. I wonder if he was (subconsciously?) influenced by the social media trends?

With returning items now a normal part of the shopping experience, 'to unpurchase' would prove a useful addition to the vocabulary of commerce.
Thursday May 7th 2009, 10:30 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Lyrics of the 1971 No. 1 C&W hit from Lynn Anderson:

How can I unsay the things I said to you
How can I undo the things that we used to do
Tell me how can I unfeel the way I feel for you how can I unlove you
How can I untight the hold that you got on me
When you won't unchain my heart and set me free
How can I unremember every memory so how can I unlove you
I'll never never uncry tears that I cried when you said goodbye
No I'll never never unmiss the thrill that I missed when we used to kiss
How can I unsay the things I said to you
And how can I undo the things that we used to do
Tell me how can I unfeel the way I feel for you how can I unlove you
Thursday May 7th 2009, 10:44 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Orin: Similarly, there's...

Un-break my heart
Say you'll love me again
Undo this hurt you caused
When you walked out the door
And walked outta my life
Un-cry these tears
I cried so many nights
Un-break my heart
--Toni Braxton, "Un-break my Heart"

You can't uncry the tears that you've cried
You can't unshoot that gun
You can't unlive the life that you've lived
You gotta go on, go on
--Pam Gadd, "Go On"

Yale linguist Larry Horn, an expert on the "un-" prefix, has a big collection of such song lyrics.
Thursday May 7th 2009, 1:30 PM
Comment by: Mike B. (Washington Crossing, PA)
GREAT article! I believe the article regarding "Twitterese" (Is this a NEW word?)represents a great way for those of us rapidly becoming "Age Challenged" to keep up with the times!

I also thought of two more musical "UN"words. "Unchained Melody" by the Righteous Brothers (and others) in which, ironically, I don't believe the word "unchained" ever appears in the lyrics.

And who could forget "Unchain My Heart" by Ray Charles and also Joe Cocker!!

Keep up the good work!!
Thursday May 7th 2009, 2:19 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Songwriters and poets have to cram ideas and feelings into such a restricted space that neologisms form within them, like the elements form with the stars because of the extreme temperatures and pressures within.
Thursday May 7th 2009, 2:42 PM
Comment by: Abigail R. (Tucson, AZ)
For an antonym to unsubscribe, try cancel.
Thursday May 7th 2009, 3:32 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
If you chnage your mind, you can always uncancel.
Thursday May 7th 2009, 4:19 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Don't forget the twictionary: http://twictionary.pbworks.com/
Thursday May 7th 2009, 10:33 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Enjoyed your article immensely.
This is the thing about our English language: it is flexible, resilient, flexible, tough, pliable, persistent, usable, and wears well without exception.
Saturday May 23rd 2009, 11:21 AM
Comment by: TANYA R.
I loved this article! I twitter, so there are lots of cute words for me to use. I was thinking with all of these "un" words, it will be funny (to me, anyway) the next time I have to return an item to tell the salesperson "I'm here to unpurchase this dress."

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