Social Media Popularity Reflected in 2009 Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year

It’s that time of year – tinsel and string lights come out from storage and the New Oxford American Dictionary announces its word of the year… just in time to wrap it up nicely and place it under the tree.  

Last year Oxford gave the gift of hypermiling but that didn’t take us very far at all. However, this year is different — social networking-savvy folks are already more than familiar with the  2009 Word of the year:


The ultimate Secret Santa gift, you’ll notice this one’s wrapped in bitterness and vinegar with a ribbon of denial, and tagged with one less number of friends than you had yesterday… and it’s going to take you a long time to figure out who it came from.

Oxford’s official definition of the verb unfriend is “To remove someone as a friend on a social networking site such as Facebook.”

Senior Lexicographer for Oxford’s US dictionary program Christine Lindberg states “It has both currency and potential longevity. In the online social networking context, its meaning is understood, so its adoption as a modern verb form makes this an interesting choice for Word of the Year.”

Lindberg continues to explain how “Most ‘un-‘ prefixed words are adjectives (unacceptable, unpleasant), and there are certainly some familiar ‘un-‘ verbs (uncap, unpack), but ‘unfriend’ is different from the norm. It assumes a verb sense of ‘friend’ that is really not used (at least not since maybe the 17th century!) Unfriend has real lex-appeal.”

Some runners up for the 2009 Word of the Year include the following:

Hashtag – a # [hash] sign added to a word or phrase that enables Twitter users to search for tweets (postings on the Twitter site) that contain similarly tagged items and view thematic sets

Intexticated – distracted because texting on a cell phone while driving a vehicle

Netbook – a small, very portable laptop computer with limited memory

Paywall – a way of blocking access to a part of a website which is only available to paying subscribers

Freemium – a business model in which some basic services are provided for free, with the aim of enticing users to pay for additional, premium features or content

Oxford determines the Word of the Year based on lexicographic tracking of the English vocabulary, observing how it changes from year to year. Ultimately when the word is chosen, its selection reflects the mindset of the year as well as its potential to last and maintain cultural significance and use.