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Facebook: a language

Today is Mark Zuckerberg’s 29th birthday – yes, the co-founder and CEO of Facebook is still under thirty. Facebook turned nine this February, which is surprisingly young given its influence upon the English language. It is my part-time addiction to Facebook, and not, I hasten to add, my degree in English, that has qualified me to write this post. My daily conversations with friends (some real friends and some strictly Facebook-friends) about the everyday events of Facebook make me confident in Facebook-speak, a parlance that is fast becoming a common part of day-to-day dialogue.

Imagine if, ten years ago, someone had said to you ‘Have you liked the OxfordWords Facebook page?’ (Incidentally, have you?!) You would, perhaps, have thought they were talking absolute gibberish. If your best friend had asked you to comment on his/her status, you might have felt awkward, intrusive, and most likely confused. Today, however, like, status, tag, and poke (ok maybe not poke) all play a part in most people’s lives in some form or another, and the English language reflects how Facebook has given a slightly different nuance to these familiar words.

Moreover, and because Facebook users love a good statistic…

According to the Daily Telegraph newspaper, if Facebook were a country, it would be the third most populated country in the world, after China and India. Facebook is a global phenomenon, and thus Facebook lingo is arguably a global language.

Much of the language of Facebook is made up of fairly normal everyday words – for example: status, profile, like, wall, and tag. Both like and wall are in the top 1000 frequently used words, and I can’t help thinking that this has something to with our beloved FB, and not an increase in Geordies or dry-stone wall experts. That said, look closely at their respective definitions and you will not spot the phrase ‘My photo has ten likes’ or ‘Why did you post that horrendous photo of me on my wall?’ amongst their example sentences. This, I wager, is because of the explosive, and relatively un-traceable, rapidity with which words from Facebook, and similar virtual worlds, have entered our everyday vocabulary. Facebook-related words spread more swiftly than a video of a cat doing something incredibly sweet/funny/stupid on YouTube – and that’s speedy. Let’s take a look at just a couple of the words that Facebook made famous – but which have been around longer than you’d expect.

Centuries of unfriending

A word we all associate with Facebook that has made its mark on dictionaries of current English is unfriend. The term unfriend will strike a gut-wrenching chord with us all. There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction (guilt, relief?) of unfriending someone on Facebook. Equally, no outrage is as instantaneous as that of the person being unfriended – ok, satisfaction and outrage are strong terms, and completely dependent on your real-life to Facebook-life balance – but that’s another topic entirely. Back to the issue at hand – the act of being unfriended, and its lexicographical implications. The term unfriended is not, you may be surprised to learn, a Facebook-specific term – as the Oxford English Dictionary will tell you. Way back in 1659, when Mark Zuckerberg was just a distant sparkle in his great-great-great-great-great grandmother’s eye, Thomas Fuller (1607/8–1661), Church of England clergyman, wrote in The appeal of injured innocence (1659) ‘I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us’ – revealing a fear of being unfriended long before the age of the virtual pal.

Social networking

Someone with plenty of virtual friends is birthday boy Mark Zuckerberg. You may recall the 2010 film The Social Network, about Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook, which capitalized on the buzzword social network – a term we hear often in both our social and work-lives. The idea of an online forum as a social network is recorded in the OED as a relatively new term, with its current earliest citing in 1998. However, the term used to describe ‘a system of social interactions and relations’ is far older than that. It is first cited in the OED from J. B. Gough, who wrote ‘I again became involved in a dissipated social network’ in his 1845 Autobiography, which makes you wonder how many friends he would have gained or indeed lost as a result, had he been an active user of today’s biggest social networking site.

Interestingly, the term ‘social networking’ is relatively late to develop when compared with ‘social network’. Evidently, whilst people were persuaded to engage in a social network, they weren’t ready to call it social networking (which as a physical activity doesn’t pop up in the OED until 1973, and then as a virtual engagement in 1998), an activity which some people could be accused of doing too much of nowadays (not me though – as I said before, mine is only a part-time addiction).