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Unfriend very unfriendly
Nov 30, 2009

“Unfriend” has a “friend” in the New Oxford American Dictionary, which has chosen the Facebook-friendly word as its 2009 Word of the Year (WOTY).

For those unacquainted with the friendly confines of social networking, unfriend means to remove someone from your friends list on Facebook. Apparently, unfriend was chosen because it reflects “the ethos of the year and its lasting potential as a word of cultural significance and use,” according to the WOTY press release. 

Christine Lindberg, senior lexicographer for Oxford’s U.S. dictionary, said the word has such a user-friendly capacity that it will survive due to its “currency and potential longevity.”

But that may not necessarily be true. Unfriendly to everyday usage have been past WOTY nominees  hypermiling and locavore, which quickly vanished from common usage. For the uninitiated, “hypermiling,” the 2008 WOTY, refers to driving using techniques that maximize fuel economy. Those who practice the techniques were referred to as “hypermilers.” The 2007 WOTY, “locavore,” was coined by Jessica Prentice during World Environment Day 2005 to describe and promote the practice of eating a diet consisting of food harvested from an area most commonly within a 160-kilometre radius. Locavore may still be used, but only by a select few who practice food-gathering in a 160-kilometre radius. The word is not common usage, which is also the case for hypermilers.

Unfriend was chosen from a list of 24 contenders, including (unless you’re  technologically savvy, you can be forgiven for not having a clue about some of these words ):

Hashtag: a # (hash) sign added to a word or phrase that enables a Twitter user to search for Tweets, which are postings on Twitter sites that contain similarly tagged items and view-thematic sets.

Intextocated: distracted because of texting on a cellphone while driving a vehicle. Note: texting while driving is an extremely dangerous practice.

Netbook: a small very portable laptop computer with limited memory.

Paywall: a way of blocking access to part of a website which is only  available to paying subscribers.

Sexting: the sending of sexually 

explicit texts and pictures via cellphone.

Freemium: a business model in which some basic services are provided for free in order to entice users to pay for additional premium features or content.

Funemployed: to take advantage of newly-unemployed status to have fun or pursue other interests.

Zombie bank: a financial institution whose liabilities are greater than its 

assets, yet continues to operate due to government support.

Birther: a conspiracy theorist who challenges U.S. President Barak Obama’s birth certificate.

Choice mom: a person who chooses to be a single mother.

Teabagger: a person who protests Obama’s tax policies and stimulus package, often through local demonstrations known as “Tea Party” protests, which is a throwback to the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

Deleb: a dead celebrity.

Tramp stamp: a tattoo on the lower back, usually on a woman.

My favourite is Ardi, since it’s the nickname given to Ardipithecus ramidus, the oldest known bipedal hominid species, dating back 4.4 million years.  The fossil remains of Ardi discovered in Ethiopia have caused palaeontologists to reconsider the origin of human bipedalism, as the earliest-known hominid was primarily a tree-dweller who happened to be capable of walking on two legs. Previously, palaeontologists believed the first hominids gained the ability to walk on two legs while eking out an existence on the open expanse of the African savanna. It should be noted that Lucy, the nickname given to the 3.2-million-year-old female hominid Australopithicus afarensis whose fossil remains were found in 1974 in Ethiopia, has entered popular lexicon.

According to Lindberg, the 2009 WOTY employs unconventional use of the un prefix, which usually designates adjectives. Unfriend is a verb form, added Lindberg, which includes such words as unpack and uncap. Yet, unfriend is so unfriendly to English-language usage that it has to go one step more and become an abnormal “verb sense” of friend. Actually, there is precedent for converting friend into a verb, claimed Lindberg, because it was used as such in the 17th century. The fact such usage has been abandoned does not seem to matter to the U.S. lexicographer.

But friend can be a verb transition, as in “to act as a friend of: befriend,” according to the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. The Concise Oxford Dictionary calls this usage of the word archaic. 

One could argue that creating the verb unfriend is merely a case of being “retro,” which today is in. Consider the release of digitalized Beatles albums on CDs which have now become all the rage. The albums originated back to the 1960s, and many of the new listeners are the grandchildren of those who lived in the hippie era — now that’s retro, although not as retro as the verb-form of friend dating to the17th century.

“In the online social networking context, its meaning is understood,” said Lindberg, “so its adoption as a modern verb form makes this an interesting choice for Word of the Year.”

Unfriend has “real lex-appeal,” according to Lindberg. Apparently “lex-appeal” (at best this phrase is slang, as lexicon is the root of lex) is a play on “sex appeal,” which has a heck of a lot more “appeal” as it is actually comprised of two real words.

The 118-year-old American Dialect Society voted subprime as its WOTY for 2007. So far, unlike locavore and hypermiling, subprime has stood the test of time, although in the U.S., as well as many other countries, it has taken on the connotation of a derogatory word, as subprime mortgages were the catalyst for the world-wide recession. It’s unlikely the adjective subprime will soon be forgotten. As such, subprime has “lex-appeal,” using the vernacular of Lindberg.

How friendly to the tongue unfriend becomes is a matter of speculation, but if past WOTY honourees are any indication, it may just be a passing fad. Still, English is an evolving language, and words are continually being added to its lexicon from a variety of sources, including the Internet.