Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Unfriend

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 21, 2014

Social media platforms have been responsible for the rise in new words such as tweeting and tweeple, but it’s also given rise to the return of old words such as unfriended and unfriending.  It may seem odd that before Facebook, that unfriending and being unfriended happened.  Now the question is this:  How long have people been unfriended and unfriending?

The poem, “Easter Week” by Erik Axel Karfeldt is included in a poetry anthology entitled, “Arcadia Borealis.”   The book was published in 1938 at the University of Minnesota.  I don’t know what possessed me to read the poem, but read the poem I did.  Imagine my surprise when I came across this passage in the poem.

Imprisoned in the grave, my friends are banished —
I have an unfriend in the days long vanished;
God’s peace be over
The house from which I then was rudely thrust!

Surprised to find such a modern word in a poem written and published over 75 years ago and long before technology was a common occurrence in almost every household, I began to wonder about the history of the word unfriend.  If someone was an unfriend (and not an enemy), then at one point had they been friends?  It was a question that nagged at me until I took matters into my own hands and began hunting down the answer.

Research uncovered a Letter to the Editor in the archives of the Pall Mall Gazette.  The letter writer was Oscar Wilde, and his letter was published under the heading, “Half-Hours With The Worst Authors.”  The famous playwright took exception to what he called the “extremely slipshod and careless style of our ordinary magazine-writers” and he used an article written by George Saintsbury (who had published a book on prose style) that had recently been published in the January 1886 edition of Macmillan’s magazine. It was in point 9, that the word was used.

9.  He certainly was an unfriend to Whiggery.

That certainly carried, not only the spelling, but the sense as well, of being unfriended.

The comment reinforced by belief that if one could only be unfriended, that could only happen if they had previously been friends, and it stands to reason that if two people had been friends at one point, one or both could be unfriended.

But would history bear this out?  Indeed it did as it was found in the writings of Patrick Abercromby, M.D., in his book “The Martial Atchievements of the Scots Nation: Being An Account of the Lives, Characters, and Memorable Actions of Such Scotsmen as Have Signaliz’d Themselves by the Sword at Home and Abroad” in Volume 1 published in 1711.

William, King of Scotland, thought himself unconcern’d with these Transactions:  ‘Twas not his Business to determine who had best Right to the Crown of England; yet he made no haste to Recognize King John’s Title:  And it seems he was by that Prince’s Party consider’d as an Unfriend; for his Brother, Earl David was one of these suspected Peers that summond to Court, and by many fair Promises cajoll’d into a Submission.

In other words, William, King of Scotland, was a frenemy in the eyes of King John of England … someone who King John had considered a friend, but whom he now considered an unfriend.  Yes, it would appear that King John unfriended King William.

Sneaking back into the previous century, the next document I found was used in a letter written by English church historian, Thomas Fuller, to Peter Heylin.  It was dated 1659, and is found in “The Appeal of Injured Innocence.”

I hope, sir, that we are not mutually Unfriended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.

There is was in black and white, and using the old-fashioned, obsolete version of today’s screenshot.  Printed proof that unfriending could, and did, happen back in the 17th century!  So how far back did this unfriending activity go?

Back in 1566, according to the State Paper Department of Her Majesty’s Public Record Office, they have in their possession a collection of documents entitled, “Calendar of State Papers, Foreign Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth I.”  You see, the passage on page 118 of Volume 8 makes a clear delineation between a friend, an enemy, and someone who was once a friend … someone who was unfriended.

The King confessed that reports were made to him that Murray was not his friend, which  made him speak that which he repented. The Queen said that she could not be content that either he or any else should unfriend Murray.

I don’t know for certain who Murray may have been (though I suspect the reference may be to the Earl of Murray, the illegitimate son of James V), but it would appear that the King and others had unfriended him.  Not nice, you historical figures, you! That’s,you know … technology-free cyberbullying!

That’s where the trail ran cold, however, the fact of the matter is that the word unfriend was known and used in the mid-1500s with no worry that the others wouldn’t understand the word’s meaning.  It was very clear what unfriending was.

Now all of that is interesting, however, in the context of today’s technology, unfriending someone on Facebook isn’t a new activity that came about as a result of technology.  People have been unfriending others for centuries with and without computers, with and without Facebook, with and without a written account of the actual unfriending!

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of unfriending or unfriended than the State Papers of 1566, however, it is reasonable that because the word was used by royalty in 1566, it was understood by the general population.  Idiomation therefore pegs it to at least the beginning of the 1500s, with the likelihood that it pre-dates that date as well.

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