The many meanings of ‘friend’

These days, the word ‘friend’ means more than simply the person you hang out with. It’s a digital acquaintance, a verb, an ‘un-verb’…

In his recent article Malfunctions, misdemeanors, metaphors, Michael Rundell describes how we’ve created a lot of computer terms by recycling familiar words (such as “window,” “virus,” “memory,” “desktop” and “folder”) and applying them metaphorically to the digital realm. He mentions “iconas a noteworthy example, in that its computer-related sense is now the most common.

Another interesting word in this context is “friend.” It straddles the digital and physical environments in a way that reflects its great flexibility and complex usage. Over the last few years its use online, particularly in social networks, has popularized the transitive verb “friend(“Thanks for friending me!”), along with derived forms like “defriend” and “unfriend,” which is part of what Ben Zimmer called a “flurry of un-verbs.”

There are endless debates over the meaning of “friend.” This is not surprising given how important our friends are to us, and how much we talk and think about the people we talk with. There are people we encounter online and befriend offline, old friends with whom we keep in touch through email and Facebook, and countless variations on these themes.

Joseph P. Kahn observes, in his commentary on the nature of friendship and the word “friend,” that “our common reference points are becoming less fixed as the lines blur between the virtual and real, the face-to-face and Facebooked.”

We all adapt to this shifting terrain in different ways, redefining “friend” and re-categorizing friendships to suit our habits, purposes and feelings. And although our online activities have brought new dimensions to the word “friend,” the disputes and discussions about what it means are just a new phase—and perhaps an amplification—of age-old debates. We’ve always pondered the differences between friends and acquaintances, mates and companions, buddies and confidants.

Marlene Dietrich is said to have remarked that it’s the friends you can call up at 4 o’clock in the morning that matter. Growing up, I heard several versions of this aphorism. Nowadays, regardless of the time of day or night and where you are geographically, there are always people up and about online. They might be people you’ve never met and never will meet, but whom you still consider your friend—even if you qualify the term with an adjectival “online.”

Stan Carey is a freelance writer and editor. He writes about language on his blog, Sentence first, and on Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where this article first appeared. You can also find him on Twitter.

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