Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On Friending

A discussion ensued in class last week about the Facebook-centered verb form "to friend." Most of my students were of the opinion that not only is this "new verb" here to stay but that in a few years time no one will remember a time when it wasn't a verb in common use. They believed the same would be true of "to facebook" as a verb. Then they asked my opinion, and I gave it to them.

Yes, over the centuries we have added new verb forms to the general fund of English words. Most have come to us from the specialized jargon of sub-groups of English--think "to mouse" entering the language from the language of computers. Some we borrow from other languages.

Re "to friend," it may indeed enter general English and remain for a while, as a specialized form of "to befriend," referring only to befriending someone on Facebook. I don't think, however, that it will replace "to befriend" in general usage. For one thing, despite Facebook's desire for it to be otherwise, there are more people who are not on Facebook than are on Facebook. For those not on Facebook, the use of "friend" as a verb will raise eyebrows. For another thing, I believe that it will remain as informal usage and won't be accepted in "official" writing, such as that required in academia. And for another thing, I think this will be a generational divide, with those who grew up without "to friend" as a verb generally not using it in regular parlance.

As to "to Facebook," it's not going to be even as much accepted as "to friend" might be. Generally, trademarked item names that have entered the language and have survived in common usage are for items in a general class of commonly used things. Thus, many people today tell you to go get a kleenex when you sneeze, even if that isn't the brand of tissues you use. The same used to be true for the items that keep food cold in your kitchen--for decades those items were referred to as fridgidaires, no matter whose brand they were. A lot of people, when asked if they would like a cup of coffee, will respond with "Do you have Sanka?" It's not that they are asking for that brand in particular; they are asking if you have decaffeinated coffee available. Could be the time of day, but I'm having trouble thinking of even one product that has come into the language as a verb other than "to hoover" as a substitute for "to vacuum."

My students looked at me with disbelief when I gave them my opinion. And they were totally disbelieving when I told them that 20+ years from now they will find themselves in the awkward position of having to explain to their own kids and grandkids just what Facebook was. It's a fad, and like other fads in the past, it will have its time and pass into oblivion. No one wants to hear that the world they count on being there may only be temporary. I left them with this thought: Do you believe that technology has reached its zenith? Do you believe that all that is possible to be invented has already been invented? Do you believe that computers as presently constituted are the end of the line? Is there something better, something different beyond computers as we understand them today?

Perhaps I should have given them that old saying I grew up with: here today, gone tomorrow. If it could happen to me, it can happen to them.

Just a little note on all that "friending" that goes on and wanting everyone to "friend" you.
Be thou the first true merit to befriend; His praise is lost who stays till all commend.
Alexander Pope


Mrs. S. said...

Good points.

RE: an example of a verb - We used to say "to xerox" instead of "to photocopy".

shoshana (bershad) said...

I agree with you. I don't use Facebook, so I don't "friend" anyone. I don't "tweet" or participate in "tweetups" either. I think that the use of these terms will always be limited to the internet or telephone.

Another brand-name verb is "to google" -- concise shorthand for "to search by means of a search engine." There are probably lots of other such terms in tech and internet parlance.

As an editor (and old fogey), it took me a long time to accept "to access" as a verb (i.e., "to gain access"), but eventually I felt that I was being too stuffy, so I allowed it. "To access" seems appropriate in the context of clicking on a link to a web site; you don't "access" a person who answers your knock on the door. Similarly, I was taught that "to impact" only had the meaning of "to pack together," but in recent years, I've gotten used to the meaning of "to have an impact on." There's an advantage to being less wordy.

I also notice the word "fun" used as an adjective (as in: "We had a fun day"). To me, it's teenager-speak, and I don't use it. Bah, humbug!

Deb said...

just another brand of petroleum jelly.

Miami Al said...

To Friend - verb

The status of making someone a connection on a social network.

It is NOT a synonym for befriend, the act of becoming friends with someone.

You befriend your college roommate.

On Facebook.com, you friend old friends from high school and college. On LinkedIn, you friend people that you have done business with.

Do you dispute that when you are on a computer, you click a link? No, use the mouse to click on a hyperlink?

Friending as a verb may or may not lazily replace befriend as a verb (I'm guessing that it probably will, but I hope not), but as a verb, it's hear for the "foreseeable future" as long as social networks exist in their current incarnation.

Xeroxing something was the term for photocopy for quite a few years, but I never here it now. I also rarely here people ask for Kleenex, usually it's tissue. The brand as generic is normally a short run phenomenon.

But complaining about the to friend verb is silly, it's a specific access on a specific type of Internet application.

So you can friend you aunt so she can see her great nephew/niece online, you can't befriend your aunt, she's family.

JS said...

You bring up the issue of "genericide" - when a trademark becomes generic, or no longer indicative of the source of a product, but of the genus of products. So, Escalator no longer refers to a particular conveyance made by the Escalator company, but to all automatic staircases. By statute, a trademark that becomes (or is) generic, is not protected.

Companies try to combat this, by using advertising and other public awareness campaigns. For example, for a while xerox ran advertisements saying something like "You cannot 'xerox' a document, but you can copy it on your xerox brand copy machine."

Interestingly, you see nouns become generic more often than verbs since in using the verb you're necessarily referring to the source of the product. For example, people may say "google it" when referring to using a search engine, but you'd never "google" on Yahoo or Bing. Similarly, you can't "facebook" someone on MySpace.

ProfK said...

If complaining about the use of "friend" as a verb is silly, all I can say is I'm in good company in doing this complaining. The use of friend as a verb made every language complaint list published in 2010. These lists are compiled by a number of universities and general sites, such as the grammar site at about.com.

The problem is that Facebook users are taking that "friending" away from its specific use on the site and attempting to apply it as a verb in regular speech.

And by the way, yes I can befriend my aunt--that we are related does not necessarily mean that we hold each other in affection. If that aunt is also my friend then I like her in addition to being related to her.

Re "Do you dispute that when you are on a computer, you click a link?"--why would I dispute it? "To click" in the sense that it is used in your example entered the English mainstream quite a while ago. One of the specific meanings of the verb "to click" (which has been around for centuries) has to do with computers. Not the same thing as the "to friend" argument at all.

ProfK said...

You might want to see Dry Bones take on "being facebooked."

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of a cute Connie Willis story about "generating language." I think the rule cited was that nouns become verbs. So that is normal progression of language.