To "Friend" or "Defriend"? That is the Question

08/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

If you ask me, one of the worst things assaulting the English language in the last few years is the transitive verb "friended." "Friend" is, of course, a wonderful word and a wonderful concept. But, good grief, "friended" or its companion form 'friending"?! It's awkward, ugly and somehow implies that a modicum of force has been applied in the action. Worse yet, the clumsy neologism seems to have replaced the perfectly acceptable words "befriended" and "befriending."

The unwelcome appearance -- perhaps already included in late-model dictionaries -- has, of course, to do with Facebook, where all the frenzied "friending" is taking place. And where an even more heinous word has come into being: "defriending." It's more heinous, because the notion of having "friended" someone at least suggests a positive gesture. Defriending someone carries a high-wattage negative jolt.

I bring this up not to denigrate Facebook. I have a Facebook page. I bring it up because of a melancholy conversation I had with a, well, good friend the other day. This is someone who also has a Facebook page and has "friended" an impressively large group but who mentioned -- as we discussed a friend we have in common, who's also on Facebook -- that he "had just defriended" our mutual friend.

Both of us saw this as an unfortunate development and in no way gloated over the change. In fact, I said I was genuinely sad it had come to this, at which point my friend said the "defriending" wasn't categorical, that he intended to continue speaking to the "defriended" friend. He explained that his action was due to the "defriended" friend's Facebook posts. The defriending friend just didn't want to read them anymore.

While that declaration was somewhat of a relief, it did seem the "defriended" friend might be hurt that the action was in reaction to what had been perceived as the uninteresting, even insipid, bent of his frequent shared thoughts. He wasn't likely to agree that what he posted was trivial, was he? He'd most likely see the "defriending" as a repudiation of who he is. As a result, the friendship between the "defriended" and the "defriender" could very well suffer severely or, indeed, terminate entirely.

With that on my mind, I begin to think of the entire "defriend"-"defriended"-"defriending" concept, It struck me that although the words are new and vastly unappealing, they point to an aspect of the marvelous but often prickly institution of friendship.

Thanks to Facebook and other social networks, we may have new words for it now, but the difficulty of ending friendships is a familiar and universal problem. I'd venture to say that just about everyone drawing breath on the planet has at some juncture either dropped a friend or been dropped by one -- or both.

I have. And now it may be necessary to mention that I'm not talking about friendships that just fade away -- generally over a longish period of time. I'm talking about: 1) cutting off a friendship after much internal deliberation, and/or 2) being informed by a onetime friend that the friendship is no longer wanted.

Not a heart-warming experience either way, but somehow inevitable because friendship is a complex enterprise. Isn't it a matter of balance? Doesn't it have to do with the internal scales of justice we all have? Since no one, including ourselves, is perfect, we tend constantly to find ourselves weighing the positives against the negatives. Some buddies are so close to perfect there's no worry about the scales tipping in the wrong direction. Other friends, particularly when the negatives we've been excusing begin to gain weight, become iffy -- just as some of our habits and proclivities become iffier to our friends.

Then comes a day when the scale does tip from "Keep the Friendship" to "End the Friendship." Suddenly, there's a decision to make. It's rarely an easy one, especially when the urgent need to cut and run is in conflict with the seemingly easier out of letting things stand unacknowledged.

But, one way or another, ending an unsatisfactory friendship is, after all, a part of life. I can't deny it. Who could? What I will deny is that "defriend," "defriended" and "defriending" are words I want to use -- on or off Facebook -- even if they apply to an irrefutable, though unfortunate, human condition.