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It’s WOTY season

The Monitor’s language columnist wonders how anyone can pick just one Word of the Year.

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In the true spirit of Christmas, which impels retailers to deck their halls with boughs of plastic holly while the Halloween candy is still on display, lexicographers start announcing their picks for Word of the Year before Thanksgiving.

The New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) has named its Word of the Year for 2009: unfriend. As a verb it means “to remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site.” The choice of a word related to social media was not surprising. What did surprise some, though, was the choice of an essentially negative word. 

Richard McManus, a technology blogger who is editor of ReadWriteWeb, commented, “All the trends indicate there has been more social networking activity this past year – not less (as ‘unfriend’ implies). Facebook and Twitter have rocketed in popularity.”

Another interpretation might be that social media have caught on to the point that people must cull their online “friends,” perhaps by trimming them back to include, oh, I don’t know, maybe only people they actually know. Or does that sound too 2008?

NOAD could have chosen friend, but that would have had to be explained: friend as a transitive verb. “I friended him on Facebook.” That’s not the same thing as “We became friends” or “We made friends.” The American Heritage Dictionary lists friend as a transitive verb, but tags it “archaic.” Befriend goes back to the mid-16th century, and presumably covered the same ground as make friends.

There’s a whiff of difference, though. Befriend is what someone does to someone else, as a kindness. An older couple might befriend an impecunious student. “Making friends” sounds more reciprocal.


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