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Work of Art: Wish to friend someone?

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By Art Trujillo

In the past few days, I performed two highly unusual acts: I chose to gift a relative and to friend someone on Facebook. You say this is no big deal?

Let me explain:

At the school I attended three-fourths of my life ago, Immaculate Conception, in Las Vegas, our English teacher, Margaret Kennedy (after whom Highlands’ Kennedy Hall is named), drilled into us the notion that there are verbs and there are nouns.

Sounds simple enough, and we all know that many English words, such as “race,” and “dream” can be both parts of speech. You can race (verb) in a race (noun) and you can dream a dream. But what I now have trouble with is the wholesale verbing of nouns, which appears to be a partial result of the Internet generation.

The main grammatical point I  make here is that we don’t meet or make friends anymore; instead, we “friend” them. And rather than giving a gift to someone, we get rid of that annoying participle and simply “gift” that person.

Lately, I’ve received a number of renewal solicitations which encourage me to “gift” a subscription to someone. If I renew my subscription to National Geographic or Atlantic Monthly, for example, I can “gift” up to three friends. Their year’s subscription for them is absolutely free; however, when the year is up, I expect to be “gifting” the same magazines again, to the same people, who will have gotten used to the gratis stuff that comes in the mail.

This round of gifting is bound to be expensive. And so as not to appear like a real cheap-oh, I’ll probably go through the process again.

Now, “friending” is a slightly different matter. A year or so back, I joined Facebook. It’s a social network, the subject of a recent movie, and a way to get re(acquainted) with loads of people. Participants can vent, deliver birthday greetings, complain, praise, brag and even post photos.

Facebook also provides a way for users to share photos and even albums. I’ve posted hundreds of images in albums whose titles range from “Around Town” to “Senior Profile” to “Desperately Seeking a Caption.” And that activity doesn’t cover my newly acquired activity of playing a version of Facebook Scrabble with a dozen people.

Facebook can be a wonderful way to keep in touch with others, but it has also modified the language. I believe today’s social network society has rendered the word “friend” virtually useless. It’s almost as if we’ve inflated the word through overuse, in the same way that a dime used to mean something but no longer does.

Notice how freely the word “friend” gets tossed around. Kids come home the first week of school, bragging, “I’ve made lots of new friends, but my best friends are Heather, Mikayla and Brittany.” But next week, the names are subject to change without notice. Have you heard people complaining about their “worst friends”? If they’re that bad, are they even friends?

The classical meaning of friend ought to be more than simply someone you enjoy seeing at a party. Friendship needs to involve trust, empathy and mutual interests. A friend will always “be there” for you. But today’s semantic stretch of the word has made it all-inclusive, as if everyone who signs on to your Facebook page suddenly earns the hallowed title of friend.

Another reason for bringing up Facebook is that I’ve observed various reactions to it. One friend (-er-) acquaintance acted as if joining Facebook were like signing up for a satanic cult and simultaneously dooming our souls to perdition while opening up our private lives to the whole world.

Actually, Facebook does neither. It’s true that reputations can be marred through this medium, and perhaps some people may have even contemplated suicide while being members. However, it’s not Facebook that’s causing it; it’s the abuse of the medium, the reality that there are predators and other weird people around. Being on Facebook is about as innocuous as sharing a large party line on the telephone. When phones were a novelty in the ‘40s, there were four numbers on our partyline. The four residences were all on Railroad Avenue, and each number, with its distinctive ring, had someone named Arthur:  Byers, Madrid, McElroy and Trujillo.

Currently, I have 160 people on my Facebook page identified as friends. Many are relatives, some work-place acquaintances; others church-connected, or perhaps people from my past, fellow teachers, former students, kids I grew up with on Railroad Avenue. Others, called Friends of a Friend, or FOAFs, might have more than a thousand with the distinction of “friend.”

On my Facebook blog, I doubt that I know half these “friends.” I spend time each week updating photos and news snippets. For a recent octogenarian’s birthday, I posted a dozen photos and announced they were available for viewing. But the catch is that we need to “friend” someone to enable them to gain access to our Facebook page. That act helped to increase the friend quotient.

Unless we come up with a word not as strong as friend but not as cold and impersonal as acquaintance, we’ll continue to devalue the Facebook word until it becomes meaningless.

Language change is inevitable. For example, “ride” serves as a verb and a noun, as in “I ride in the car” and “I went for a ride,” But have you noticed that now “ride” refers to the usually new vehicle itself, as in “He drives a nice ride”? And new books have become nice “reads.”

That usage of the language still baffles me. Maybe after checking out the fare at a restaurant with people I’ve friended, I’ll be better able to accept the wholesale turning verbs into nouns. With luck, I’ll friend someone who might even gift my eats.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.