In the Appeal of Injured Innocence, the word “unfriend” was coined in 1659 by Church of England clergyman Thomas Fuller.
What’s the context around the first use of the word unfriend?
Did you think “unfriend” was a word before Facebook? We did, and we were wrong.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first citation of the word “unfriend” (AND “muggle”!) was in a 13th-century epic Middle English poem Brut by Layamon. There are two uses of the word in the poem.
Of course, it’s a little hard to read English from this time, but it may be easier to say it out loud: “We sollen … slean houre onfrendes and King Learwenden after Brenne.” And “Wend to oure onfreondes and drif heom of blonde.”
Ok, that might seem like cheating. But unfriend was a word used throughout the Middle ages to denote one who is not a friend (but not quite an enemy).
Unfriend becomes a verb
Unfriending someone seems very Facebook-specific, but the word was also used for a very long before the 21st century (though still not as a verb). We have Shakespeare to thank for using ‘unfriended’ to refer to someone who has lost their friends. For example, in Twelfth Night, he wrote “Being skilless in these parts; which to a stranger, / Unguided and unfriended, often prove / Rough and unhospitable.”
In King Lear: “Sir, will you, with those infirmities she owes—. / Unfriended, new adopted to our hate.”
It was used as a verb in the 17th century when, in 1658, Church of England clergyman Thomas Fuller wrote to Peter Heylin, who had criticized Fuller’s The Church History of Britain from the birth of Jesus Christ until the year 1648,
“I hope, Sir, that we are not mutually un-friended by this difference which hath happened betwixt us. And now, as duellers, when they are both out of breath, may stand still and parley, before they have a second pass, let us in cold blood exchange a word, and, mean time, let us depose, at least, suspend, our animosities.
[…] I conceive our time, pains, and parts may be better expended to God’s glory, and the Church’s good, than in these needless contentions. Why should Peter fall out with Thomas, both being disciples to the same Lord and Master? […]
Who knoweth but that God, in his providence, permitted, yea, ordered, this difference to happen betwixt us, not only to occasion a reconciliation, but to consolidate a mutual friendship betwixt us during our lives, and that the survivor (in God’s pleasure only to appoint) may make favourable and respectful mention of him who goeth first to his grave?”
But as Interesting Literature (cited below) points out, Facebook still doesn’t take the cake for the first to use the word for social media purposes. “But even in social media circles, ‘unfriend’ predates Facebook, with which it is not most closely associated.
“Its origin, or at least its first recorded use, was on Usenet in 2003: ‘I have been “unfriended” by somebody in the LJ world today.”