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What happens when language becomes “Facebook official”?

It’s hard to imagine that just 10 years ago, few of us had even heard of Facebook. What initially started out as a social network for students of Harvard University has grown into one of the most frequented (and valuable) domains in all of the vast space of the Internet. As quickly as the now ubiquitous images of the thumbs-up icon and white ‘f’ on a blue background have pervaded our online culture, so has the adoption of the Facebook vernacular. Co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg must have learned early on that sometimes the best words to use are the easiest to understand.

New meanings from real use

Part of the rationale for adding new social media contexts to the Oxford Dictionaries definitions of like, poke, and status was discovering an impressive amount of evidence of Facebook’s influence on everyday usage. The corpus-collected sentences below are just a sampling of the many that aided in the lexicographical development of these new senses:

like – (verb) indicate one’s liking or approval of (a web page or posting on a social media website) by activating a particular icon or link; (noun) an instance of indicating one’s liking or approval of a web page or posting on a social media website

And I don’t care if a million people “liked” your article, it was still wrong.
– If your spouse is on [F]acebook, do you have to “like” everything they say and do?
– He has 530,000 “likes”.

poke (verb) – (on the social networking site Facebook) attract the attention of (another member of the site) by using the ‘poke’ facility

– She has been arrested for Facebook “poking” a woman who had filed a legal order of protection against her.
– They report that the new Facebook application will offer deeper integration with your phone for better all-around poking.

status (noun) – a posting on a social networking website that indicates a user’s current situation, state of mind, or opinion about something

– If any of you follow me on Facebook and saw my status update late last night, I would like to vent my reason for it.
– You use the example of posting a status update that you’re going for a shower.

Where language goes to die and be reborn

When your idea of a friend goes from being ‘a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection’ to ‘a contact on a social networking website’, it’s easy to argue that technological appropriation of common words dilutes the potency of the language. However, we’re also able to see this same appropriation result in a resurrection, albeit unintentional, of rare English words that have now been put to productive use. Such is the case with unfriend (which as we’ve discussed before, existed in its noun form as early as the 13th century, fell out of use, and then had a revival in the wake of Facebook social dynamics), evolving from the noun: ‘one who is not a friend or on friendly terms; an enemy’ to the verb: ‘remove (someone) from a list of friends or contacts on a social networking website’.

Evolving technology, evolving language

Even Facebook language changes over time. With the deactivation of not-so-popular or outdated features comes the phasing out of use in this context of words that were assigned to the now-obsolete technology. For example, once the single profile page expanded to a multi-level personal hub, the static Facebook wall—on which one’s friends could post messages for all in one’s preferred network to see—became the Facebook timeline, a space that allows people to curate the material on their own profiles to spotlight significant events, posts, and other activity.

On being complicated, making it official, and the art of stalking

Relationships in the real world are not always simple, and the Facebook language we use to discuss, characterize, and even define them is no different. A long-endured, often-mocked option for the status of a relationship people can choose to proclaim on their profiles is “It’s complicated.” As one might imagine, a relationship classified “complicated” can mean several things, and few of them, if any, are ever good.

The use of official (adj.) became an unofficial barometer in recent years used to validate the status of a romantic relationship. If you’re “Facebook official,” you and your partner have both confirmed on the site to your entire network of friends that you are either 1) in a relationship; 2) engaged; or 3) married. Typically asked in jest, the question “But are you Facebook official?” implies that the asker won’t believe your new romantic situation is real until your online relationship status says so.

Stalking is never a laughing matter, IRL or online—unless you’re talking about how many people spend (or waste) their time on Facebook, in which case the action is commonly understood as ‘frequently visiting and thoroughly perusing someone’s Facebook profile’. Although I can’t provide any empirical evidence, I think it’s fairly sound to say that “Facebook stalking” one’s ex can prove irresistible for the recently dumped.

Celebrate Facebook’s 10th birthday with us by “liking” (and just plain liking) the Oxford Dictionaries page.