By Dr Oliver Tearle
The origin of the word ‘friend’ – and the noun ‘friendship’ which is formed from it – lies in the mists of time, although the first recorded use of ‘friend’ is in one of the classic works of English literature. Let’s take a closer look at the etymology and history of ‘friend’ and ‘friendship’.
The English word ‘friend’ is cognate with the Old Frisian friend, the Old Dutch friunt, the Old High German friunt, and the Old Icelandic frændi, among others. All of these words are ultimately descended from the same word, which is a noun formed from the present participle of the Germanic base of the word free. So ‘friendship’ is related to ‘freedom’, etymologically speaking.
‘Free’, while we’re at it, was related to ideas of love when it was first used, the idea being that to love was pretty much the same thing as to set something free. ‘If you love someone, set them free’ isn’t just a cheesy sentiment from pop song lyrics: it is an etymological truth. ‘Friend’ is a ‘free-end’, as it were: someone you love, or make free in some way.
By the way, although ‘friend’ and ‘fiend’ are etymologically unrelated, their distinctive (indeed, unusual) ‘-iend’ endings probably evolved alongside one another. Indeed, the original meaning of ‘fiend’ was ‘enemy’ or ‘foe’, before it came to refer to devil, demon, or other evil spirit.
When it first appeared on the scene, ‘friend’ had already acquired pretty much the meaning it has held ever since: ‘A person with whom one has developed a close and informal relationship of mutual trust and intimacy’ or, more widely, ‘a close acquaintance’ (OED). However, it also denoted someone who was simply not hostile, or not your enemy, regardless of how close (or not) your acquaintance with them was.
The earliest known use of the word ‘friend’ is in one of the great epic poems of European literature, and a work that is often seen as the starting point, or originator, of the tradition of ‘English literature’. That poem is Beowulf, composed over a thousand years ago by the Saxon settlers from north-western Europe who came to England (i.e., ‘Angle-land’, land of the Angles) in the centuries following the withdrawal of the Romans and preceding the Norman Conquest of 1066.
In Beowulf we find the line: ‘Heorot innan wæs freondum afylled; nalles facenstafas Þeodscyldingas þenden fremedon’, which can be translated as ‘Heorot [the great hall] was filled with many friends; no false treacheries did the people of Scyldings plot at this time.’
The -ship suffix is Germanic in origin, too, related to -schaft, and denoting the state or quality of something: in this case, of being a friend. ‘Friendship’ is also attested from pre-Norman times, in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.
The word ‘friend’ has also been used as a verb, although this conversion from noun to verb hasn’t exactly caught on and entered mainstream use. Since the thirteenth century, ‘friend’ has been used as a verb meaning ‘to make friends with someone’, long before people were ‘friending’ each other on Facebook.
Meanwhile, the OED’s earliest citation for the word ‘unfriend’ is in the epic Middle English poem Brut by Layamon (Laȝamon), which was probably written in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. Layamon uses it as a plural noun twice: ‘We sollen … slean houre onfrendes and wenden after Brenne’; and ‘Wend to oure onfreondes and drif heom of londe.’ The word appears to have continued to enjoy popularity in the Middle Ages as a noun, denoting ‘one who is not a friend’.
It’s in the seventeenth century that the word ‘unfriend’ becomes a verb. The OED provides a letter from Thomas Fuller in 1659 as the earliest citation: ‘I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.’
Numerous phrases and proverbs featuring the word ‘friend’ have sprung up since. One of the most popular, ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’, means ‘a friend who is there for you when you really need their help is a true friend’, although there are two things to say in relation to this proverb.
First, ‘indeed’ is often written as ‘in deed’, emphasising that the true friend is someone whose deeds or actions bear out their claims to friendship. Second, it’s a classic example of a proverb which sacrifices clarity in favour of brevity, and thus weakens its force and power: taken at face value, the proverb appears to say, ‘a friend who is in need of help is a true friend’, which makes no sense whatsoever. It can be shelved with ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ as an example of the proverb-writer on an off-day, trying too hard to be pithy (and rhyming) at the expense of communicating a piece of true wisdom in a clear manner.
And in any case, this sentiment was not new when it first surfaced in English writing. The Greek tragedian Euripides offered the same sentiment in the 5th century BC, in his play Hecuba: ‘ἐν τοῖς κακοῖς γὰρ ἁγαθοὶ σαφέστατοι φίλοι’ (i.e., ‘for in adversity good friends are most clearly seen.’ The Roman writer Ennius, writing several centuries later, expressed a similar sentiment: ‘amīcus certus in rē incertā cernitur’ (‘a sure friend is known in unsure times’).
More recently, the phrase ‘friend with benefits’ has become popular, and denotes a friendship between two people where they also have casual sex, hence ‘benefits’. However, when this phrase first arrived on the scene in the mid-1990s, it actually denoted the opposite, referring to a lover with whom one also shared a friendship: ‘friends with benefits’ originally meant ‘lovers who are friends’ rather than ‘friends who are occasional lovers’. Curiously, the OED’s earliest citation for ‘friend with benefits’ is Alanis Morrisette’s 1995 song ‘Head over Feet’, from her huge bestselling album Jagged Little Pill.