'Unfriend' or 'Defriend?' Facebook Fans Debate

"Unfriend" is top word of 2009 but some say it should be "defriend."

November 17, 2009, 12:25 PM

Nov. 17, 2009— -- When you take the leap and (gasp!) remove someone as a "friend" on Facebook, what do you call it?

This week, the New Oxford American Dictionary -- OAD for short -- announced that the 2009 Word of the Year is "unfriend," as in "to remove someone as a 'friend' on a social networking site."

Describing it as a word with "real lex-appeal" on Oxford University Press USA's blog, Christine Lindberg, a senior lexicographer for the publisher, said, "It has both currency and longevity."

But no sooner had Oxford unveiled its top word of the year than Facebook fans erupted with commentary.

Though some say "unfriend" is indeed the verb they use to describe the action of axing a "friend" from their social networks. Others say the OAD's pick was DOA.

"It should be de-friend, not unfriend. I've been using facebook since it began and do not agree with unfriend. (and I guarantee my facebook friends would agree with me)," commented one Facebooker on the publisher's blog.

Another chimed in: "I also use 'defriend' and have never heard of 'unfriend.' For the record, I'm 24 and use Facebook most regularly. I first signed onto Facebook when I was 19, right when it opened up to my college."

But the new word of the year is not without its backers.

"No, unfriend is definitely more lexy," wrote another commenter. "Defriend misses the whole point and is both boring and uncreative. Unfriend should be compared to undo – which is in social networking exactly what one does. It's not befriending someone and making acquaintances in reverse, it's just undoing a function – unhitting the friend button."

Adam Ostrow, editor-in-chief of the social networking blog Mashable, said that when he posted a write-up about Oxford's decision, a similar debate broke out on his site.

"It's kind of something where people, commenters on our site, see an opportunity to slam the old, out-of-touch entity," he said.

But, Ostrow said that, from his observation, "unfriend" is hardly wrong.

"We've definitely seen both," he said.

Facebook Users Debate 'Defriend' vs. 'Unfriend'

The Urban Dictionary, a user-generated online archive of American slang, includes multiple entries for both "defriend" and "unfriend."

One of the more popular entries for "unfriend" describes it like this: "Compulsive people prune their friend list periodically, removing people that they no longer have contact with. More often though, unfriending is only done when a particular friend's updates and self-promotions become so annoying that you can no longer stand hearing about them."

The entries for "defriend" are nearly identical.

Also defining it as the action of removing someone from a social networking site's "friend" list, one entry says, "Doing this is often seen as a passive-aggressive move, telling the person without telling them that you no longer want to be friends. It's also commonly a response to drama. Defriending someone often causes more drama. There are sometimes valid reasons for doing this."

Jillian Quint, 27, an assistant editor at Ballantine Books in New York City, said she thinks "defriend" is more accurate.

"Unfriend… implies a complete lack -- that you are absolutely not friends," she said. "Defriend implies that you were once friends."

She said she's heard both but thought the word "defriend" was already in parlance.

"Defriend seems to apply more to the action. Unfriend seems to apply more to the state of being," she said.

But despite the continuing debate on and offline, Oxford said the decision was cut and dried.

"Unfriend was chosen because it's much more common than defriend," Lauren Appelwick, a publicist with Oxford University Press, Inc., told ABCNews.com.

Though she couldn't elaborate on Oxford's methodology, she said the department responsible for tracking the use and evolution of language is very good at monitoring language trends.

"It's funny because there seem to be little clusters of people who have never heard the word "unfriend," she said, but added that research indicated that "unfriend is far, far more popular."

In announcing the word of the year, Oxford's Lindbery said, "Most "un-" prefixed words are adjectives (unacceptable, unpleasant), and there are certainly some familiar "un-" verbs (uncap, unpack), but "unfriend" is different from the norm. It assumes a verb sense of "friend" that is really not used (at least not since maybe the 17th century!)."

'Unfriend' Is Example of How Social Networks Are Changing Relationships

To some Facebook users (even those who prefer defriend), the dictionary's decision shows just how deeply social networks have infiltrated our lives.

"I think it's a cryptic example of how things like social networks are changing our relationships," said John Fischer, 27, a marketing strategist in New York City. "You used to have to deal with all the messy real-world parts of ending a friendship and now you can just click on a button and delete someone."

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