Addition of “unfriend” to dictionary reveals insecurity

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Last week heralded a new age in the evolution of our dear Facebook. No, there wasn’t another newsfeed redesign or privacy update. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg and friends weren’t even involved in this change.

On Tuesday, the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary decided that “unfriend” was their word of the year for 2009. In case you are one of the five students on campus without a Facebook account, or in case you always keep every single one of your Facebook friends, I give you the new official definition:
“Unfriend — verb — To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.”

Eloquent, don’t you think?

The past week has shown the word of the year to be controversial. Across the Internet, bloggers have decried this outrage. Columnists have challenged the validity of “unfriend,” claiming that terms such as “defriend” are much more popular. While I admire these protesters, I feel that they do not address the deeper issues at stake.

I personally take umbrage with this neologism for a multitude of reasons.

For one thing, “unfriend” isn’t even a new word. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was used in print in 1659, and even back then people were worried that a “Difference which hath happened betwixt” them might cause them to be “mutually Unfriended.”

Aside from the fact that the “word of the year” for 2009 seems to be 350 years old, it seems a bit premature to assign a word to a year in the middle of November. Do people stop using language after Thanksgiving? If it turns out that the 2012 apocalypse happens slightly sooner than anticipated and is instead this December, I think that “unfriend” might be a little weak to describe the end of the world.

As if their sense of timing weren’t bad enough, half of the board members probably don’t have Facebook accounts. They don’t understand that “unfriending” someone, as they so officially put it, is an emotional and personal decision. By giving an official definition to this difficult process, Oxford University Press has limited our ability to define ourselves.

Facebook encourages us to share our inner souls with the entire population of the Internet, all of whom care deeply about what we are eating for lunch today and how much homework we have due tomorrow. It helps us to expand out of our social bubbles by suggesting new friends that, I’ve found, end up being people I’ve always been missing in my life. It reminds us to post on our friends’ walls when it’s been too long (according to some brilliant algorithm, no doubt). And let’s not forget the most important use of Facebook — advertising new relationships or the fact that we’re looking for one. It’s a wonder that civilization made it so long without this indispensable information source.

With its promotion of this new “unfriend” moniker, Oxford University Press is not bringing a new word into the official lexicon. It is, in fact, working to undermine the very foundation of modern society. Where Facebook encourages us to find new friends, this organization seems instead focused on destroying social connections. “Unfriend” is just the latest in the Oxford dictionary’s succession of antisocial vocabulary, joining such pernicious terms as pugnacious, acrimonious, donnybrook, and the ever-popular tetricity. Compare that to Tuesday’s word of the day on the socially responsible Urban Dictionary: “Palintologist — A person that [sic] follows/studies political dinosaurs.” I think the distinction is pretty clear.

Now, I can understand why Oxford University Press has chosen to set itself against the coming Facebook utopia. Books and newspapers are dying, and dictionaries have been on the way out for years. Logophiles are endangered, their only sources of comfort esoteric Scrabble boards (the ones that have no triple word scores but give extra points for diacritical marks). It’s only natural to want to preserve one’s own breed by sacrificing the greater good of society.

The decision of Oxford University Press to choose “unfriend” over such attractive finalists as “netbook” and “sexting” is a desperate effort to maintain its so-called relevancy while fighting against social unity. Facebook should be a place for making friends, not losing them. Decades from now, when anthropologists look back at 2009, I hope they do not characterize it the same divisive way as Oxford University Press.