Unfriend: \ˌənˈfrend\ verb. “To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.”
Although a definition like the one above might not be in a dictionary anytime soon, “unfriend” has become a part of the English language, and lexicographers at the New Oxford American Dictionary are taking note.
Officials at Oxford University Press USA, the publishers of the dictionary, announced the 2009 Word of the Year is “unfriend” because of its prevalence in society.
The word is supposed to have a “highly significant impact on the year” and create a “time capsule for that year,” said Christine Lindberg, senior lexicographer for United States dictionaries at Oxford University Press.
Although Facebook didn’t begin in 2009, its widespread use has made it into a cultural phenomenon that culminated recently, Lindberg said.
It’s hard to think of an impactful word that’s not related to social networking, she said.
Jargon derived from the social networking site Twitter was also considered for the Word of the Year, one finalist being “hashtag” — a hash sign added to the front of a phrase that allows users to search for similar tweets. Twitter-related words — “twitterverse,” “twitterature,” “tweetaholic,” etc. — were listed as a notable word cluster for 2009 on the Oxford University Press blog.
Lindberg said “unfriend” has real “lex-appeal” because although it seems like a very new word, it actually comes from a word used in 1659. The definition of the word hasn’t really changed, but the venue to which it is applied has, she said.
A new generation of English speakers has resurrected a word that was almost dead, Lindberg said.
Although the word has a strong relationship with the younger generation, it doesn’t belong to it, Lindberg said. “Unfriend” is an appropriate word for people of all ages, she said.
Lindberg predicted the word will leak outside social networking and be used whenever people terminate relationships. The word has potential longevity.
Tim Machan, a Marquette English professor, said this Word of the Year choice is part of a continuing process common in natural language to add and eradicate words.
“The wonderful thing about language is new words appear when we need them to describe cultural phenomena,” Machan said.
Technology and pop culture influence society, which influences how society describes what goes on in the world, he said.
Bradley Rentz, chancellor of Marquette’s Linguistics Club, said the choice of “unfriend” shows the power of technology in creating new words.
“If you look at any new technological thing, you can find new words,” said Rentz, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences.
Rentz said he understood why “unfriend” was selected instead of “friend.”
“It’s a bigger deal to unfriend someone than to friend them,” he said.