Verbification, and other made-up words
Updated: Sep 10, 2020
Maybe it's time we reconditioned the word "friend."
Photo by Barrie Kreinik: Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT
Let’s face it: the English language has always been a shifty beast. There was a time when the plural of cow was kine, when Americans spelled color with an OU, and when thee and thine were the less-formal forms of you and your. So it should come as no surprise to us when modern language seems to change at the speed of an Acela train—which is to say, rapidly, but with plenty of bumps.
Consider, if you can bear to, our current linguistic climate. Who’d have thought, in February, that phrases like social distancing, flatten the curve, and super-spreader would emerge as the latest lingo on everybody’s lips? With the help of mass media, these terms spread firelike across the country in a matter of days. “To socially distance” would have sounded impossibly strange three months ago. Now it’s not only familiar, but universally understood.
Over the past several years, we’ve seen similar linguistic shifts in the realms of technology and the internet, where words that were once mere nouns have been, for lack of a better term, verbified. “Text me,” “message me,” “DM me,” we say, thumbs flying across our tiny screens. It’s enough to make a throwback like me miss old-fashioned handwritten letters. At least for those we use an entire hand.
Then there are words that have maintained some of their grammatical structure while taking on entirely new meanings. “Follow me” used to be a physical command given to one person or a small group; having hundreds or thousands of followers would have sparked suspicion, not joy (unless you were the leader of a cult). “Like,” likewise, was used as a verb or a speech filler (like, whatever, y’know), but was never a noun. Now we worry about how many “likes” we get, and fret if the number’s not high enough. Not to mention the fact that birds are no longer the only creatures who tweet.
In 2004, my best friend called me on the landline in my college dorm room to tell me about a newfangled website called Facebook, which was, as she put it, “a great time-waster.” At that point still limited to college students, it consisted of little more than a profile photo and the prompt, “[Your Name] is…” After which you could finish the sentence and post your “status.” It was a way to connect with friends at other colleges, and with students at your own college whom you might not know. The command commonly used at the time was “Facebook me”—meaning, “Look me up on Facebook.”
This phrase was not, as it happened, unknown to me: my high school had a literal item called a facebook that was published annually and contained the name and photo of every student and teacher. If your friends weren’t acquainted with the boy or girl you were crushing on (another noun that’s recently been verbified), you’d say, “facebook him/her,” and they’d pull the book out of their backpacks to see what your love object looked like. So it seemed natural to me that someone should have created an online version of the same concept. (It’s salacious origins notwithstanding.)
The phrase “Facebook me” soon fell out of vogue, however. It was quickly replaced by the phrase that is still in use today—a phrase that I find in many ways problematic:
The word friend, used from the 12th century onward as a noun, was first used as a verb during the 13th century; according to Merriam-Webster, it meant “to act as the friend of.” By the 1550s, however, a new verb had eclipsed it: to befriend. Beyond simply acting as someone’s friend, this word meant “to become a friend” to them. To be their friend.
In childhood, the act of befriending is a simple one: if the question, “Will you be my friend?” is answered in the affirmative, the deed is done. In adulthood, befriending someone isn’t so simple. Anyone who has moved to a new place will tell you how difficult it can be to make friends when you don’t know anyone. As adults, we can meet friends at work or through social activities, but friendship doesn’t just happen: it takes effort and time. To befriend another person requires that we put ourselves out there. It’s vulnerable. It’s awkward. It’s a process.
Having lost its archaic meaning, the verb “to friend” now tells a different story. You “friend” someone on Facebook by tapping a button. You maintain that friendship by logging into the app and scrolling through that person’s posts. Maybe you message them, or follow them, or view their “story”—another interesting word mutation: no longer a series of words that tell a tale, but a collection of images. Maybe you even wish them a happy birthday—when the app tells you to, of course. Still to an extent merely a “great time-waster,” Facebook has diminished the act of friendship to a series of clicks. And it’s made the verb form of the word so ubiquitous, it even comprises the eyebrow-raising title of a popular TV show: “God Friended Me.”
During the past few months, when many of us have been stuck at home, contact with our friends has become more important than ever—but it’s also been much more difficult to achieve. So although Facebook can be a window onto the world for those in isolation, its trivialized version of friendship is increasingly inadequate. What does it mean to be a friend, beyond the superficial act of friending? Does clicking “like” or leaving a pithy comment have anything to do with actual kinship? Can attention or approbation from one’s digital “friends” fill the void that separation from our flesh-and-blood friends has left in us?
The answer, of course, is no—and folks seem to be catching on. Though many people (myself included) are spending a bit more time than usual on social media, the skyrocketing popularity of video calling—for every purpose from class reunions to happy hours to game nights—indicates that in our isolated state, we’re searching for something more social than media. There’s even been an uptick in good old-fashioned phone calls—which, as some have noted, can be a lot more satisfying than peering into a tiny screen for a video chat. But even these are not substitutes for real person-to-person contact—even if it involves a moat of air six feet across.
In the past few days, thousands of people have risked their lives to physically stand in solidarity with their friends and allies. And though many who are still in isolation are using social media as a platform for activism, they’re also showing unity and support in countless real-life, real-time, really important ways. So maybe it’s time we reconditioned the word friend. Look around at the people you’re making a real effort to stay in touch with. Pick up the phone to dial it rather than swiping. Check in with the people you befriended before friending was a thing. And look forward to the day when we’ll finally be able to look into each other’s mask-free faces and say—in whatever adultified way we can—Will you be my friend?