linguistics and lexicography Love English

Stories behind Words: unfriend

stories behind words unfriendDo sentences like the following make you shudder?

Surprisingly many of my friends don’t know how to unfriend Facebook friends.
For the record, I unfriended him like 2 years ago because I couldn’t stand his rudeness.

If I asked you when you thought the verb unfriend had started to be used, you would probably guess that it was when Facebook and the like started to become popular, in the mid noughties. You’d be right on the whole – the earliest quote in the OED that relates to social media is from 2003. But fascinatingly there is a much older citation in the entry:

1659 T. Fuller Let. P. Heylyn in Appeal Injured Innoc. iii, I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.

Users of English have always made nouns of verbs and verbs of nouns, and added prefixes and suffixes in order to widen the range of what they are able to say. Thomas Fuller could easily have said ‘I hope our friendship will not end because of…’ or ‘I hope we will remain friends despite…’ but he didn’t; he chose instead to use – perhaps even to coin – a verb which expressed his idea in a more active and dynamic way.

Browse the archive of Stories behind Words and get in touch if you’d like to suggest a word/phrase for the series. We’d love to hear from you!

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter


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