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Dictionary word of the year: 'Unfriend'

By Doug Gross, CNN
"Unfriend" beat out "sexting" and "hashtag" to become Oxford's word of the year.
"Unfriend" beat out "sexting" and "hashtag" to become Oxford's word of the year.
  • Oxford dictionary names "unfriend" its word of the year for 2009
  • Term means to delete someone as a friend on Facebook or other networking site
  • Other finalists: "sexting," "hashtag" and "birther"
  • Some online say the term "defriend" would have been better

(CNN) -- It's prone to cause drama in the online world.

And, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, it's the word of the year.

"Unfriend" beat out a tech-heavy field that included "netbook," "hashtag" and "sexting" to take the annual honor.

"It has both currency and potential longevity," said Christine Lindberg, a language researcher for Oxford's U.S. dictionary program. "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."

Oxford defines "unfriend," a verb, thusly: "To remove someone as a 'friend' on a social networking site such as Facebook."

Every year, Oxford tracks how the English language is changing. Researchers debate the merits of newly birthed terms and choose their word of the year "to reflect the ethos of the year and its lasting potential as a word of cultural significance and use."

A hashtag is the symbol (#) used on Twitter posts to allow them to be found more easily by other users, a netbook is a small portable laptop, and "sexting" is the act of sending sexually explicit texts or photos on a mobile phone.

Other tech-related finalists this year were "paywall," a way of blocking parts of a Web site to all but paying customers, and "intexicated," the state of being distracted while driving because of sending a text message.

The economy provided "zombie bank," a financial institution still operating even though its liabilities are greater than its assets, and politics brought us "birther," which Oxford describes as "a conspiracy theorist who challenges President Obama's U.S. birth certificate."

On blogs Tuesday, debate about the decision was ongoing. Chief among the issues of dispute: whether "unfriend" or "defriend" was the proper word for weeding someone from one's online circle.

"Frustrated that 'unfriend' is the word of the year. It's definitely 'defriend' when referencing Facebook," one Twitter user wrote, adding the hashtag #dictionaryfail.

Others defended the choice: " 'Defriend' makes me think of 'defoliate' and, well, I dunno, it sounds weird," one wrote.

Oxford spokesman Christian Purdy said researchers found that "unfriend" was more commonly used.

Facebook spokeswoman Meredith Chin said that, both internally and on the site, Facebook uses several terms for the act of removing a friend. She said site managers now are considering making "unfriend" the official term.

"Overall, we're thrilled that the idea of people connecting, or even unconnecting, with each other on sites like Facebook has officially become part of the lexicon," she said.

For the past few years, Oxford and other dictionaries that pick words of the year have leaned heavily on the digital world.

In 2004, Merriam-Webster kicked off the trend by adding "blog" to its lexicon. The Webster's New World Dictionary went with "overshare" last year, inspired in part by the habit of spewing too much personal information on social networking sites and blogs.

With gas prices spiking, Oxford's word last year was "hypermiling," the act of conserving gasoline by making fuel-saving changes to one's automobile and driving habits.