OnWords: Unfriend

Nov 22, 2016

This past election season, we’ve seen a spate of unfriending. In order for “unfriend” to be a verb, “friend” must also have become one.

To “friend” a person is a function of social media. The process is as simple as clicking a virtual button and sending a request, to be requited or refused in the great digital beyond. Back in ancient times when “friend” was only a noun, this process was much more drawn out. You “befriended” someone, which implies that the onus of beginning the process was on you. Or you “made friends with” someone. You put in the work to build something new.

“Friending,” by contrast, isn’t really making something. It’s simply giving mutual access to one another’s social media feeds. Sadly, social media encourages glibness and over-sharing, while making friends is a process of understanding where the other person is coming from. And we may also realize, sometimes it’s better not to share what you’re thinking for the sake of the friendship. Now we get to the point where we have to “unfriend” those people who, having made a few necessary clicks, turn out to be jerks after all.

In this process of friending and unfriending, we have saved a lot of work. But the one thing we’ve failed to do is actually make any friends. So, by tracing back unfriending’s short-but-thorny etymological path, we can see just how rare authentic relationships have become.

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