Once we were friends. Now you have been unfriended, sucker.
- Branko Brkic
- 25 Nov 2009 (South Africa)
Or were you defriended? Does a social trend stop being a social trend when it gets into the dictionary? Or does it simply become an official social trend? Whatever.
The fact is that social networking has been given an official stamp by the Oxford University Press (OUP) which has made “unfriend” – as in, what you do occasionally on Facebook – the Word of the Year. Amazingly, this has started a debate.
Christine Lindberg, senior lexicographer for Oxford’s US dictionary programme, notes on the dictionary’s blog that unfriend “has both currency and potential longevity”.
“Unfriend has real lex-appeal,” she says, which is clever (a future possible Word of the Year?), but the word has immediately started a debate, because do you “unfriend” or do you “defriend”?
It’s not as if the Oxford people have a great history here. Their 2008 Word of the Year was “hypermiling”. No, neither did we.
Hypermiling, the Oxford University Press tells us helpfully, and necessarily, is to attempt to maximize petrol mileage by making fuel-conserving adjustments to one’s car and one’s driving techniques.
It’s actually even more subtle than this. Rather than aiming for good mileage or even great mileage, hypermilers seek to push their gas tanks to the limit and achieve hypermileage, exceeding EPA ratings for miles per gallon. Wow. We are amazed.
Given that the intention is that the Word of the Year should have “lasting potential as word of cultural significance and use”, it seems possible that the OUP overestimated the extent to which the verb “to hypermile” would become part of everyday use, since no known sentient life-form has or does use the word.
Perhaps recognising this hopeless flop, OUP decided this year to latch onto something likely to be less arcane: the social networking fad. They might have done so last year or the year before that when the fad actually began, but this was clearly slightly problematic since “tweet” was one of the runner-up words in 2008.
No problem. This year they have totally covered themselves by going wall to wall (or is it the extra mile?). Not only did they choose a word from the social networking vocabulary, but an honourable mention was also given to “hash-tag” and an entire list of tweet derivatives, now included on the basis that they are “word clusters”.
These include tweetup, twit, retweet, twibe, tweetaholic, twitteratur and twitterati, none of which are defined.
But none of this solves the question of whether the 2009 Word of the Year is proper usage. Does one, in fact, “defriend” or “unfriend”?
The OUP used “unfriend” because it’s like some familiar “un-“ verb prefixes, like “uncap” and “unpack”. But as the OPD itself notes, most “un-“ words are adjectives, as in “unacceptable” and “unpleasant”.
Yet the “de-“ prefix is in some ways more appropriate, mainly because of the word “deactivate” or even “depreciate”. It just has more of a “now I’m going to do the opposite thing” quality about it.
But the bigger question is this: is it worth arguing the toss about a word that does not even actually exist yet? Perhaps not.
Or follow my twitter feed.
Maybe we tweet-up?
By Tim Cohen
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