"My friends thou hast defriended"

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The winner of the 2009 Dutch Word of the Year, as selected in an online poll conducted by the Van Dale dictionary group and Pers newspaper, was ontvrienden, a social networking verb equivalent to English unfriend or defriend. NRC Handelsblad recently reported that ontvrienden can be found in the Dutch historical dictionary Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal with citations back to 1626:

The entry quotes references dating from 1626 and 1658. One is a reference to the infamous courtesan of Lais, a woman so beautiful — and sexually available — that she drew pupils away from a famous philosopher, "defriending" him in the old-fashioned sense of the word. "Today you can defriend someone. In the past, you were defriended," said Wouter van Wingerden, a linguistic consultant with the Society for the Dutch Language.

The other reference is found in Psalm 88:8, translated in the King James Bible as "Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me." The Dutch version quoted in the Woordenboek might be close to 400 years old but it is definitely more concise. It reads 'Mijn vrienden hebt ghy my ont-vrindt,' which translates to "My friends thou hast defriended."

The word fell into disuse after the 17th century, perhaps because the Netherlands had few friends left. By 1672, the young Dutch republic found itself at war with France, England, and the dioceses of Cologne and Munster.

Similarly, unfriend, the New Oxford American Dictionary Word of 2009, is dated by the OED back to 1659. For further thoughts on the revival of unfriend and ontvrienden, see my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, "'Sleeping Beauties' in English and Dutch."


  1. Peter-Arno Coppen said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 7:05 am

    The statement of Van Wingerden suggests that Dutch 'defriend' was used in passive voice only. This is clearly not the case (both references are active). Actually, there were two meanings in older Dutch: (1) to take away someone's "friend-properties" (which is essentially the current meaning), derived from the prefix 'ont-' and the adjective (!) 'friend' (derived from present participle 'vri-end'); (2) to rob someone of his friends, derived from prefix 'ont-' and common noun 'friend'. Only the latter is a productive morphological proces in present day Dutch (e.g. 'ontkurken' "un-cork", 'ont-luizen' "de-louse").

  2. Karen said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    No, I think Van Wingerden means that: in the past, "defriend" meant "to take someone's friend away", while now it means "to cease being someone's friend".

    I like having "unfriend" for that second meaning (at least in the Facebook thousands of "friends" context), and "defriend" is nice, too.

  3. Peter-Arno Coppen said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 10:03 am

    Actually, I asked him and he admitted that he didn't really have that clear a picture. He carelessly responded "yes" on a journalist's question (by phone) suggesting something about a "more passive meaning" in the past.

    The meaning "to cease being someone's friend" is indeed not attested in older Dutch. Semantically decomposed the two meanings would be CAUSE(BECOME(NOT(FRIEND))) and CAUSE(HAVE(NO(FRIEND))). What you are suggesting is a modern meaning BECOME(NOT(FRIEND)). Then you would use it intransitively, right? I haven't heard it being used without an object in Dutch, though (unless passive of course).

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    I would guess that the Dutch ont- corresponds to the German ent-, and in fact entfreunden seems to be attested in German.

    Incidentally, since the original of the Psalm in question has hirhaqta… mimeni, I would have guessed that German would have used von mir entfernt, but instead Luther wrote ferne von mir getan, indicating that he used the Vulgate longe fecisti… a me rather than the Hebrew as his basis, or even the Septuagint, which has ἐμάκρυνας …ἀπ᾽ ἐμοῦ.

  5. Barbara Partee said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 4:28 am

    This is interesting. (Hi, Peter-Arno, it’s been a long time! 25+ years?) I don’t think there’s any intransitive use of defriend or unfriend. But your representations don’t explicitly take account of the two argument places of ‘friend’, and that in turn raises the question of whether the noun ‘friend’ and the potential verb ‘friend’ are symmetrical or not. Your second meaning, the one with biblical sources, seems appropriately characterized by your CAUSE(HAVE(NO(FRIEND))), or equivalently CAUSE(NOT(HAVE (FRIEND))), where the relational ‘friend-of’ is combined with a relation-taking sense of HAVE; same pattern as 'deseed', 'debug', 'decapitate'. So that’s fine, an understood pattern, but it’s not the Facebook meaning.

    But the other representations, your rendition of Karen’s BECOME(NOT(FRIEND)) and your CAUSE(BECOME(NOT(FRIEND))) both need more thought; the typical instances of those word-formation patterns are built on one-place predicates like 'cool' or 'long', where we get the intransitive inchoatives BECOME(NOT(P)) (the soup cooled, the days lengthened) and the transitive causatives CAUSE(BECOME(NOT(P))) (I cooled the soup, he lengthened the pants). If instead of a one-place predicate P like 'cool' we start with a two-place relation R like 'friend', then we could expect an inchoative to be transitive and a causative could be a three-place relation [cf. the preacher married John to Sue, though we don’t often say it that way], or it could be a two-place relation if the causer is the same as one of the arguments of the relation, as it is in Facebook friending and unfriending.

    The Facebook meaning presents some puzzles. If x unfriends y, x has done something that causes them to stop being friends, but has x caused y not to be a friend of x, or has x caused x not to be a friend of y? We need some clearly non-symmetrical relations to figure out what the pattern is, if this is indeed productive at all. (I’m assuming that we don’t want a separate causative pattern ‘x causes [x and y] not to be friends’ – that would make causatives of symmetrical relations complicatedly different from other causatives, and I wouldn’t assume that unless a more uniform approach fails.)

    So let’s look at verbs from other relational nouns, like to mother, to father, to boss, to captain: x R y in all these cases is something like x causes x to become, or x acts as, R to/of y – e.g., x causes that x becomes father of y (y’s father). So it’s clear in these cases that the complement of the noun (y in those examples) becomes the object of the verb, and we can assume the same for symmetrical nouns, where we have no independent evidence of which argument is which. Then x friends y should probably be ‘x causes x become friend-of y’, and negative x unfriends y might be ‘x causes x become not friend-of y’. I think that’s probably what Karen meant by "to cease being someone's friend", or maybe she meant (and maybe she’s right) the simple transitive inchoative, ‘x become not friend-of y’.

    Here’s another hypothesis, though I don’t know if it’s right: the Facebook ‘unfriend’ might be an instance of reversative un- applied to the verb ‘friend’ (which is also a Facebook verb), like unbutton, unpack. To decide whether ‘unfriend’ and ‘defriend’ should be derived from the noun 'friend' or the verb 'friend' I guess we need to know whether there’s independent evidence for derivation of negative as well as positive causatives in the ‘Facebook sense’ (rather than of the deseed, debug type) directly from nouns. I don’t know of any; that would suggest that the verb 'unfriend' wouldn’t have been possible without the Facebook verb 'friend' coming first.

    Side note on the issue of symmetry: in my dialect, the verb 'befriend' is not symmetrical, but apparently in many people’s dialects it’s symmetrical. For me, King Wenceslas befriended the little page boy and not vice versa: King Wenceslas took some positive action, sort of like mentoring, and took on the page boy as a friend. So KW befriended PB = KW CAUSE(BECOME( KW friend-of PB). Aha: I see that whether the friend relation is symmetrical or not, the causative will be non-symmetrical because of the identification of a causer. If this were merely inchoative, then since BECOME is normally taken to have the whole following stative proposition in its scope, the resulting symmetry/ non-symmetry of the inchoative would depend directly on whether the underlying relation is symmetric or not. So that suggests that maybe those who use 'befriend' symmetrically have an inchoative verb use where I have only a causative verb use – are differences like that attested anywhere? The difference is pretty subtle – becoming someone’s friend and causing something to happen which results in becoming someone’s friend are pretty hard to tell apart.

    I’ve written too much already, thinking as I write, and I’m not an expert (only on some little pieces of this) and I think there are others out there who are, so I’ll stop!

  6. Peter-Arno Coppen said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 7:15 am

    Hi Barbara, it has indeed been some 25+ years! Your analysis is -as expected- a bit more precise than my sketchy semantic decomposition, and your idea that the Facebook verb 'to friend' has something to do with it may very well be true. However, the historical data from Dutch that I was referring to are thought to be the result of a morphological proces in which the prefix 'ont-' is directly combined with adjectives, possibly denoting intransitive relations. Examples are 'ont-heiligen' (lit. "de-holy", "desanctify"), which is CAUSE(BECOME(NOT(HOLY))), and 'ont-groenen' (lit. "de-green", BE "to rag", AE "to haze"), which is literally CAUSE(BECOME(NOT(GREEN))). In the case of 'ontheiligen' there might have been an intermediate verb 'heiligen' ("to sanctify"), but there certainly has never been a verb 'groenen' ("to make green"). So there must have been a formation combining 'ont-' directly with an adjective to get the causative verb.

    I guess that the fact that you are always a friend of someone (not necessarily of the subject of the predicate), though complicating the result, does not have to play a role in the derivation of this meaning.

    The inchoative meaning you are referring reminds me of a third morphological proces for the prefix 'ont-,' especially if it is combined with a verb, like in Dutch 'ontbijten' (lit. 'ONT-' + 'bite', "to have breakfast"), which presumably originated from a meaning BEGIN(BITE), or 'ont-branden' ("to ignite"), which is BEGIN(BURN). This inchoative meaning is also present in German 'ent-' (which is indeed the same prefix), but I don't think there are examples of this in English.

    Since the common noun 'friend' is derived from an adjective (being the present participle of the verb 'vriën' or 'vryen' meaning "to love"), the meaning CAUSE(BECOME(NOT(FRIEND))) used in historical Dutch should -I think- be explained by the morphological proces of combining 'ont-' with an adjective. The present day use of Dutch 'ontvrienden' is undoubtedly based on the English/American sources, so it may very well be that the current meaning derives from a new word formation in English. However, the new meaning is strikingly similar to that old one, so maybe the old morphological process still has some echo in present day English.

    Other examples from ont+N with intransitive relations from Dutch are 'ontburgeren' (lit "un-citizen," "to take away someone's citizenship"), 'ontchristenen' (lit "un-christian," "to make someone a non-christian"), 'ontmaagden' (lit "un-virgin," "to make someone a non-virgin, to deflower"), 'ontmannen' (lit "un-man," "to make someone a non-man, to castrate"), 'ontpolderen' (lit "un-polder", "to make something a non-polder"), 'ontraadselen' (lit "un-riddle", "to make something a non-riddle; actually, this may also be "de-riddle", "to take away the riddles from something"). 'Ontvrienden' fits into this pattern, although it does not seem very productive.

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