Oxford Unfriends Lexicographers with Word of the Year

New Oxford American Dictionary

Every year, the Oxford New American Dictionary announces its Word of the Year—along with runners up—in which the dictionary highlights terms it will be adding to its reference work in an effort to keep up with modern American usage. And the 2009 word if the year is “unfriend,” meaning to remove someone as a “friend” on a social networking or online service like Facebook.

“Unfriend has real lex-appeal,” said notes Senior Lexicographer for Oxford’s U.S. dictionary program Christine Lindberg, in comments published in the UOP blog. “In the online social networking context, its meaning is understood, so its adoption as a modern verb form makes this an interesting choice for Word of the Year. Most “un-” prefixed words are adjectives (unacceptable, unpleasant), and there are certainly some familiar “un-” verbs (uncap, unpack), but “unfriend” is different from the norm. It assumes a verb sense of “friend” that is really not used (at least not since maybe the 17th century!).”

Unlike traditional hide-bound dictionaries—like, say, the enormous Oxford English Dictionary—the Oxford New American Dictionary tries to reflect contemporary usage and document how American English is actually being used, rather than noting how academicians, grammarians, and researchers believe it ought to be used.

Other words considered for the Word of the Year award include several from social networking and modern technology, including hashtag, intexticated, sexting, paywall, and netbook. Other terms derived from U.S. politics—such as birther, teabagger, green state, and brown state—while other contenders such as funenmployed, freemium, and zombie bank—reference current economic conditions.

The New American Dictionary’s track record with Words of the Year can be a little uneven: while many Americans have probably heard 2008’s hypermiling (2008), how many recall 2007’s locavore (meaning to preferentially eat locally-produced foods)? The 2006 pick was carbon neutral, and in 2005 the publication picked podcast.