Dutch 'defriended' as far back as 1626
Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and their ilk, have spawned a host of new jargon. Surprisingly, one of these terms was already in use in 17th century Holland.
“Defriending”, or ostracizing a former pal from one’s digital inner circle, might seem to be the pinnacle of linguistic modernity. When the act of defriending was first committed is a fact perhaps lost forever in the fog of history. But surely this historic moment did not take place in 17th century Holland?
Perhaps it did, Dutch writer Ed Schilders has found. Using the tried and true technique of lexicographical resarch (i.e. looking somehing up in the dictionary) he discovered the Dutch translation of the word (ontvriending) dates back to at least 1626. He found the term in de Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, an exhaustive 43-volume opus on the Dutch language which took more than a century to complete.
"My friends thou hast defriended"
Hidden on one of the Woordenboek’s 50,000-odd pages, Schilders found an entry written in 1892 describing the practice of ‘defriending’, which at the time meant “to take away one’s friends” or “to make into an enemy”. 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.
Word of the year
In 2009, “ontvrienden” was named Word of the Year in an annual election held by the Dutch publisher of dictionaries, Van Dale. The title is commonly reserved for new words. The winner of the 2008 election (“swaffelen”) describes a decidedly odd sexual act popularised by a Dutch student who catapulted to internet fame when a video of him appeared online. Without going into unnecessary detail, the video featured both the boy’s privates and the Taj Mahal. It does not yet appear in the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal.
According to van Wingerden, the word is, to some extent, really new, since it had fallen into disuse for centuries and has only recently been reincorporated into the Dutch language as a translation from English.
For a term that describes such an unsociable act, “defriend” has proven surprisingly popular worldwide. In 2009, the New Oxford American Dictionary also anointed the word “unfriend” Word of the Year, noting that the term had “both currency and potential longevity”. The American dictionary did note the word “friend” had been in use as a verb in 17th century English.