The Mutability of “Friend”

Friends_1970I am eleven years old in the photo. I am the one on the left, in the two-piece swimsuit. I don’t look like that any more. People change. So does language, a fact which has benefits as well as annoyances. I like the precision of using just the right word for just the right purpose.

I confess, however that there are times when I decry the way language changes. One bothersome example is the adoption of “irregardless” into the everyday language.┬áBorn of a tryst between “irrespective” and “regardless”, this word has wormed its way into most American language dictionaries. I cringe every time I hear it.

A friend of mine — I use that word in the classic sense — dislikes some of the impacts web-based social networking has had on our language. If a perfectly usable word exists to describe something, he opines, why co-opt another word into the same meaning? At the time we were discussing the term “friending”, a verbification, if you will, intended to describe the act of adding someone to your “Friends” list on Facebook.

Says he, “No one on [these social networking sites] knows how to BEfriend anyone,” and I empathize with him, I do. Yet I slightly disagree. There is a subtle meaning behind “friending” that “befriend” does not quite capture. There is, as well, a subtlety behind “befriend” that does not suit it wholly to Facebook.

One definition of “befriend” is to “make friends with: to be friendly to somebody, especially to somebody who has no friends and needs help.”

Facebook friends can certainly do that, but that is not especially what they are doing when they link to one another. They may be linking just to collect names and look popular. They may be linking because they are related. They may be linking to improve their job prospects. They may or may not be friendless and need help. I think that we ought to be content with the precision of the current meaning of “befriend” and not co-opt it to mean “to connect with via a social networking site for various purposes.”

My good friend, the one with whom I was having this discussion, dug into his O.E.D. and noted that someone cobbled “befriend” together some time in the mid-16th Century.

I think he missed something,there. He is willing to accept new meanings, new word formations. It is only after they have withstood the glacial pace of time.