Oxford New American Dictionary Unfriends 2009

The never-ending evolution of words

Image from Flickr.

Image from Flickr.

As more people embrace new methods of communicating, language must evolve to describe those methods. I admit that I do more communicating via Facebook and online instant messaging than I do by phone or even in person. Even the payday loan store is being replaced by the internet.

Apparently this is true for many, as the the Oxford New American Dictionary has declared “unfriend” the 2009 Word of the Year. In the dictionary, the word is defined as “To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.” This says more than one interesting thing about modern culture.

Are we unfriendly people?

News organizations and even an Oxford Dictionary editor are painting Oxford’s choice for Word of the Year as a reflection of the unfriendliness among us. Christine Lindberg, senior lexicographer for Oxford’s US dictionary program, wrote Is it a comment on the times that our Word of the Year is about rejecting people we once embraced?”

She poses this as a question, and I have an answer: No. It is not a sign of the times. There have always been fickle, petty, vindictive and sometimes downright mean people. There have always been humble, loving people who do uncharacteristically mean things out of anger and spite if they are pushed just so.

The bright side

The positive thing about people having the option to unfriend others is that it’s harmless, and it has taken the place of more damaging methods of expressing anger. Be honest, I’m sure you’d rather be unfriended on Facebook than have your tires slashed or your car keyed or your yard toilet papered.

Yes, unfriending someone is an immature, petty way to deal with interpersonal conflict. However, I think the fact that it gives an outlet without doing property or any other sort of damage is positive. Yes, feelings can get hurt when someone gets unfriended, and it could lead to other consequences, but the act of unfriending itself is quite harmless.

More new words

Not surprisingly, many of the other finalists for Word of the Year were technologically inspired. On the short list was hashtag, a symbol (#) used on Twitter to allow people to search for terms. Netbook and paywall also were finalists. Confirming that text messaging is one of today’s most popular methods of communication, “sexting” and “intexicated” also were finalists. Sexting, of course, means sending explicit messages or photos. Intexicated refers to being distracted because of texting while driving.

The dismal economy also triggered new words, including “funemployed,” which Oxford now defines as “taking advantage of one’s newly unemployed status to have fun or pursue other interests.” Another finalist for Word of the Year: “zombie bank: a financial institution whose liabilities are greater than its assets, but which continues to operate because of government support.”

Thanks to a politics, “teabagger” and “death panel” are now officially words. As my parting piece of news, I want you to know the phrase “tramp stamp” has made it into the dictionary. Good job, America.

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