When Did "Friend" Become a Verb?
I know that language changes over time, but it bothers me that friend has become a verb. For over 800 years the word friend has almost exclusively been a noun. Since the advent of social media, especially Facebook, there is a second definition of friend listed as a verb. I am not predicting that social media will lead to the downfall of civilization, but changing a well-attested noun to a verb should give us pause. Nouns and verbs are foundational functions of communication. As an individual a verb is what you do, but a noun is what you are. Words that are both noun and verb are plentiful. We hammer a nail with a hammer. We garden in our gardens. Our aches ache. We smell a smell. But in most cases, these nouns are an object or a condition. Rarely does it refer to a person. The one exception that comes to mind is the word fool, which I find quite interesting.
Once friend became a verb, it changed the way we think about friends – those very special nouns in our life that according to the dictionary are “persons attached to us by feelings of affection or personal regard.” In contrast, the dictionary defines friend – the verb – in this way: “to add (a person) to one's list of contacts on a social-media website.” That is about as inspiring as brushing one’s teeth. So, I want to awaken us to the need to preserve the special quality of the noun friend. What follows are some thoughts on how a friend is not the same as friending. (By the way, my spell check recognizes friending as a legitimate word. Troubling, yes?)
You cannot unfriend a friend. The arrival of the verb friend has created other new words such as friending, friended, and unfriend. In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis warned us about substituting a negative term for a positive term. He rightly drew our attention to the fact that unselfishness is not the same thing as love. The highest goal of unselfishness is self-denial, but the virtue of love includes much more. If you unfriend someone on social media you cut them from your contact list. There is no equivalent in the real world. When a friendship dissolves it is painful. Consider how we describe the action. We disassociate with those who were once friends. We break up with them. We have a falling out. We abandon them. We dump them. We renounce our friendship. Notice how drastic these actions sound. It highlights the importance of what a friend ought to be.
Blocking is not the same as boundaries. When it comes to managing relationships, social media has given us a feeling of omnipotence. We can downgrade friends to acquaintances or we can block them. According to the new etiquette of social media, blocking someone is less severe than unfriending them. So if we find someone annoying but want to stay in touch with them, we simply tune them out. It is a type of conflict avoidance that avoids the behavior of a person we dislike but maintains relationship as a convenience or sympathy. Real world boundaries are quite different because they are active and direct. If we have a friend who is speaking foolishness in our presence we may need to assert ourselves and ask them to stop. If their behavior causes harm to themselves or others we will want to discuss that with them if we truly care about them (see Matthew 18:15-20). Avoiding a person in the tangible world is known as shunning and it represents the only option left to us when reconciliation with a misbehaving friend has failed.
Friending requires less of us than befriending. There is an English verb that compliments the noun friend. It is the word befriend. When we befriend another we make friends or act as a friend. This is quite different that the social media “friend request” that requires nothing of us other than opening an electronic gate that gives access to our online persona. Befriending requires us to be a friend. Consider how Jesus ended the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). He rephrased the question “Who is my neighbor?” to a new question, “Who acted as a neighbor?” The first question seeks to limit one’s obligation to love others by enabling us to define our neighbors. The second question turns this reasoning upside down and focuses us on living out the qualities of neighborliness, such as mercy and love. Perhaps the reintroduction of the word befriend to our vocabulary will preserve the soundness and “noun-ness” of the word friend.