I have something of a love-hate relationship with Facebook. It came out in my later college years and was awesome and useful, helping me keep in touch with old friends scattered at other colleges, organize meetings, and find people with shared interests. (“Hello, ludicrously attractive girl. I note that you list ‘The O.C.’ as one of your interests. As luck would have it, I’ve recently obtained the first season on DVD, if you’d like to watch it in my room.”)
Since then, Facebook introduced a bunch of features that effectively ruined the experience for me, from a feature that allowed other people’s farm animals to wander into my profile to a feature that allowed random websites to access information about me through my friends. But I still have a profile on there — rarely updated — because sometimes I have to use Facebook to access invitations or other junk that my friends have posted.
I’m not the only one with these complicated feelings toward Facebook, of course; people who regularly use the site have far stronger emotions about it. And a common one of these emotions is the need to complain loudly about Facebook’s every last grammaticality issue.
When I was still on Facebook a lot, I remember people complaining about the fact that when someone hadn’t specified their gender, the system would say things like “Lenny Dykstra has updated their profile picture,” instead of his or her or some more awkward construction. A little later, the verb “unfriend” led to a disproportionately large amount of venom directed at social sites for creating a word that, really, they didn’t create.*
Now there’s a new complaint. Facebook has a “Like” button, which you can click to indicate that you like something, like a group or product. For instance, I just found out through this wonderful system that a friend I knew in Seattle a few years ago likes dried cranberries. (Me too, OMG!) But introducing a “Like” button introduces with it a linguistic quandary. What should you call it if you decide to not like something anymore? What if, for instance, your were disappointed with Taylor Swift’s new album and no longer wish to pledge your allegiance to her?
Well, Facebook has an “Unlike” button that you can press to stop formally liking something. That makes a lot of sense, right? Much like you might untie your shoes, unbutton your shirt, or unwrap your birthday present.
But oh no! Not to the grammar police! One fellow — a Yalie, I’d like to note — writes:
Mark Zuckerberg, ‘unlike’ is not a verb. At all.
And someone started a Facebook group to address unlike, writing:
Not wishing to be a pedantic f*cktard, so correct me if I’m wrong (I’m not), but surely the opposite of ‘Like’ is ‘Dislike’. ‘Unlike’ is an entirely separate preposition, meaning ‘dissimilar to’.
And Scott McGrew, a tech reporter for NBC Bay Area, registered similar displeasure with the word:
Once you click “like,” the button changes to “unlike.” But Merriam-Webster says “unlike” is defined as “a marked by lack of resemblance.” […] What Facebook should have used if they were looking to please the proper grammar-conscious is “dislike.” We contacted Facebook to ask about this egregious attack on English, fully expecting them not to comment. Or in Facebook-ese “uncomment.”
Alas, grammar police, your sirens are misguided. First off, I know that there is an extant form of unlike that is not a verb. But English allows for the same word to have multiple meanings, usages, and sometimes even different etymologies. My favorite example of this is mean, which has 12 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, in four different parts of speech. Multiple meanings can be problematic when they lead to ambiguity, but verbal unlike won’t get confused with adverbial unlike.
Second, dislike isn’t appropriate for this situation (a point that some commenters made on the Facebook group’s wall and here). Both un- and dis- are prefixes that can be put onto verb to mean “to stop or reverse”, so either unlike or dislike could mean “to stop liking something”. But dislike already has a verbal meaning that would introduce ambiguity; stopping liking something is distinctly different from disliking it.** If you’re really being conscious of word meanings, as McGrew claims he’s trying to be, you’d surely not want to use dislike so cavalierly.
Third, unlike predates Facebook. The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for unlike as a verb meaning “to give up liking; to cease to like”, complete with an attestation from 1761:
My heart is not in a disposition to love… I cannot compel it to like and unlike, and like anew at pleasure.
So it’s settled. I will unlike the next person I see disliking unlike.
*: First, Facebook uses “remove from friends” instead of “unfriend” or “defriend”, and it was their users (i.e., us) who introduced these words. Second, unfriend already existed (although it was rarely used) before Facebook, as in this 1659 attestation from the OED: “I hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Unfriended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.” In fact, there are around 4,000 hits for unfriended in Google Books before Facebook’s founding in 2004.
**: As a Michael Jackson fan said when asked about Justin Bieber: “I don’t like him, but I don’t dislike him.”