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The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Unfriend’

The interesting history of ‘unfriend’

The word ‘unfriend’ is, like the word ‘muggle’, one that has a curious history: ‘unfriend’ had a life before Facebook. Its principal meaning now is to delete somebody as a friend on a social media side, especially Facebook, but it has been used variously as both a noun and verb since at least the thirteenth century. Its origins are somewhat surprising.

Curiously, the OED’s earliest citation for the word ‘unfriend’ is in the same poem that provides us with the first instance of the word ‘muggle’: the epic Middle English poem Brut by Layamon (Laȝamon), which was probably written in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. Layamon writes: ‘We sollen … slean houre onfrendes and King Learwenden after Brenne.’ Later, he writes: ‘Wend to oure onfreondes and drif heom of londe.’ The word appears to have continued to enjoy popularity in the Middle Ages as a noun, denoting ‘one who is not a friend’ (but not necessarily used interchangeably with ‘enemy’ – though it does allow for that meaning, too).

It’s in the seventeenth century that the word ‘unfriend’ becomes a verb. The OED provides a letter from Thomas Fuller in 1659 as the earliest citation: ‘I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.’ This is clearly the same as the modern usage, though Facebook is still a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s eye at this time.

But ‘unfriend’ was used earlier than Fuller, as William Shakespeare attests. Several of his plays use the word ‘unfriended’ to denote somebody who has lost their friend or friends. One notable example is from Twelfth Night: ‘Being skilless in these parts; which to a stranger, / Unguided and unfriended, often prove / Rough and unhospitable’. In King Lear, too, Shakespeare uses the word: ‘Sir, will you, with those infirmities she owes—. / Unfriended, new adopted to our hate’.

But even in social media circles, ‘unfriend’ predates Facebook, with which it is not most closely associated. Its origin, or at least its first recorded use, was on Usenet in 2003: ‘I have been “unfriended” by somebody in the LJ world today.’ The user who provides this glum inaugural instance of the word ‘unfriend’ in its modern context was named, rather ironically, ‘Woo-hoo’.

Image: Cordelia’s Portion by Ford Madox Brown, 1866, Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on April 22, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hello Dr. Tearle: I enjoy your pieces here, discovered more or less b y accident, and would so appreciate it if you would take a look at my blog written from the other side of the Atlantic. Any comments you have are welcome. Judith R-G

  2. Like your blog title says, this is very interesting! I love learning how modern words have origins from long ago. In a weird way, it makes me feel like we are still connected to people from centuries before.

  3. Woo-hoo! Freedom-wise, that fits. :)

  4. bibliophile thespian

    Reblogged this on The Misadventures of Mx. Scatterbrain and commented:
    I don’t remember if I’ve ever used the word “unfriend,” either as a noun or as a verb, before Facebook became a hit, but I do know I’ve unfriended people before social media even became a thing.

    Very interesting history though. Makes me wonder what the origin of other popular words are. Like, say, hashtag?

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