In this digital world, it should be no surprise that the top ‘words of the year’ this year are from the language of social networking. But what is surprising….it wasn’t geeks that chose the list.

The New Oxford American Dictionary has announced its Word Of The Year for 2009: unfriend.

Seriously. But it’s amusing that some of the real geeks don’t appreciate the wordsmiths mainstreaming language they don’t particularly consider legitimate.

Unfriend – to remove a contact on a social networking
site – has been named the word of the year by staff from the New Oxford
American Dictionary. Its editors say several tech-related words were
considered for the honor.

As somebody who writes about technology, I have to say that not only
have I never used this word myself, but I’ve never heard anyone I know
use it, or even seen it referenced anywhere before this announcement.

To me it feels as if the editors concerned have picked the word
because it intrigues them linguistically rather than because it is
serves a genuine communicative process; indeed, the dictionary’s senior
lexicographer says the word “has real lex-appeal”. Urgh.

Good one. Right back at ya’, lexicographers. Aren’t texters and tweeters doing enough on their own to alter the language?

Yes. Which is why Pope Benedict addressed them, in particular, in this year’s message for the World Day of Communications. The
pope has to focus on one aspect of communications for this one message
about communications each year. Benedict chose “New Technologies, New
Relationships. Promoting a Culture of Respect, Dialogue and Friendship”.

In other words, he’s aware of this trend of friending. And….unfriending. And what it all means.

Young people, in particular, have grasped the enormous
capacity of the new media to foster connectedness, communication and
understanding between individuals and communities, and they are turning
to them as means of communicating with existing friends, of meeting new
friends, of forming communities and networks, of seeking information
and news, and of sharing their ideas and opinions.

The speed and efficiency of new technologies may surprise us, says Benedict. But not their popularity, because

they respond to a fundamental desire of people to
communicate and to relate to each other. This desire for communication
and friendship is rooted in our very nature as human beings and cannot
be adequately understood as a response to technical innovations….

The desire for connectedness and the instinct for communication that
are so obvious in contemporary culture are best understood as modern
manifestations of the basic and enduring propensity of humans to reach
beyond themselves and to seek communion with others…In this light,
reflecting on the significance of the new technologies, it is important
to focus not just on their undoubted capacity to foster contact between
people, but on the quality of the content that is put into circulation
using these means. I would encourage all people of good will who are
active in the emerging environment of digital communication to commit
themselves to promoting a culture of respect, dialogue and friendship.

So, take care not to impulsively unfriend someone. Show a little respect. Give dialogue a chance. Even if it is in a language comprehensible only to social networkers who don’t happen to be geeks.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....