It was often the case that in his writings J. R. R. Tolkien used unusual words either in their older meanings changed today, or the ones no longer in active use. It is such words that create a very special old-fashioned atmosphere of most of the Professor’s tales, tone them down to the stories of the past and give lovers of words a chance to dig out a new lexical treasure. One of such interesting choices was the noun unfriend that does not appear in Tolkien’s works very often.

To the modern reader the word unfriend is most likely known as a verb which means ‘to remove contacts from a friend list on social networks, like Facebook’. The word itself, however, is much older than any social network imaginable and originally meant something different. Starting with circa XVI century the word’s documented appearances were mostly as either a verb, or a past participle, including in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, to denote lack of friends or friendly relationship.

The diagram based on the corpus of the English language I came across on Google shows a very uneven decline marked by a few surges in the word usage between 1800s and 1950s. In the middle of XX century unfriend went slightly dormant, and then an incredibly steep rise followed in 2000s, with its meaning altered to the one we know today.

Possibly the earliest known documented usage of unfriend belongs to XII-XIII centuries. As a noun it appeared in Layamon’s poem The Brut:

We sollen wende and wid ham fihten, slean houre onfrendes and wenden after Brenne, and don al bi reade and Rome bi-ligge…

Ich þe bringe tidinge of þan Romleode þat loþ þe his on heorte. Alle hii beoþ in Douere, þine onfrendes, and þare his Androgius to speke wiþ Iulius…

Vther bead ferde ouer al þeos eorþe, and wend to oure onfreondes and drif heom of londe…

(The Brut, emphasis mine)

In these lines onfrendes/onfreondes will be slain and driven out of the land. Thus in Layamon’s context the word clearly means an enemy, a foe.

J. R. R. Tolkien was well familiar with The Brut: the poem was mentioned in his philological writings, with a special emphasis on the vocabulary used by Layamon. The West Midlands dialect which The Brut was written in held a special interest for Tolkien. In one of his letters the Professor stated:

I am a West-midlander by blood (and took to early west-midland Middle English as a known tongue as soon as I set eyes on it), but perhaps a fact of my personal history may partly explain why the ‘North-western air’ appeals to me both as ‘home’ and as something discovered.

(Letters, № 163)

Tolkien’s familiarity with The Brut and his interest in the poem seemed to have very deep philological roots: not only was it his fascination with the west-midland Middle English, but also Layamon’s usage of interesting, unusual words that attracted Tolkien. It might well be the case that onfrend was one of such words that might have especially interested the Professor.

In Tolkien’s own writings the word unfriend was used very sparingly. The best-known instance of unfriend in the tales of Arda described the rather cool relationship between Galadriel and Fëanor. It was still in Aman, well before the big trouble began:

These two kinsfolk, the greatest of the Eldar of Valinor, were unfriends for ever.

(Unfinished Tales, p. 296)

It is clear that Galadriel and Fëanor were not on good terms. In Fëanor Galadriel “perceived a darkness that she hated and feared” (Unfinished Tales, p. 297) and her goodwill was not for him to have. Perhaps, their unfavourable relationship could have also been fuelled by the fact that Galadriel and Fëanor were the greatest of the Eldar of Valinor, so there could have also been an element of rivalry between them. However, they were not yet enemies at that stage, at least not until the Kinslaying when Fëanor and his followers fought against Galadriel’s mother’s kin and thus deserved Galadriel’s righteous anger.

Another case of somebody being referred to as unfriends described the relationship between the Men of Bëor and the Green-elves of Ossiriand. The Green-elves were in no way happy with their mortal neighbours:

For we desire no strangers in this land to break the peace in which we live. And these folk are hewers of trees and hunters of beasts; therefore we are their unfriends, and if they will not depart we shall afflict them in all ways that we can.

(Silmarillion, p. 165)

Here the Men had not yet crossed the line to be the enemies of the Green-elves, but seemed to be well under way to it. When by advice of Finrod the Men of Bëor departed from those lands, the Haladin came in their stead, but meeting “the unfriendship” of the Green-elves, they also had to depart elsewhere.

In both these cases Tolkien chose unfriend to describe lack of rapport between Galadriel and Fëanor, the mortal Men and the Green-elves. However, he did not seem to equal an unfriend with an enemy in any of these situations. The Professor used the prefix power to be rather delicate in describing the not-so-warm relationship between the individuals who were not yet on the point of open hostility but whose relationship was far from warm, more in the lines of mutual dislike from a distance. By way of contrast, the word enemy was used in The Silmarillion quite a lot: either about Morgoth (who was very specifically called the Enemy), his minions or in those situations when downright enmity or even aggression were in store, e.g. in reference to the Sons of Fëanor and anyone attempting to get hold of the Silmarils.

There is another aspect of unfriend that might have been to Tolkien’s taste: the word is properly English. The prefix un- is Germanic in origin, and so is friend. Un- was widely used as a negative prefix in Old English, but then fell out of use during the early Middle English period. It then returned in around XVI century and is now one of the most common ways of building antonyms in English. The meaning un- gives to words can be somewhat euphemistic. It smoothes the edges of negatively coloured words (an unfriend definitely does not sound as harsh as an enemy) to avoid sounding too direct and sometimes gives a newly built synonym an additional shade of meaning. Curiously, if we look at the word enemy, we will see that, being of Latin origin, it is the Latin twin of the Germanic unfriend and consists of the same elements: it comes from the Latin inimicus, from in– (not) + amicus (friend).

J. R. R. Tolkien’s usage of unusual words shows his great understanding of their hidden meanings. In key moments he never applied different words just for the sake of variety, but chose synonyms carefully to reach incredible precision and to introduce different subtle shades of meaning to make a great difference to the narrative, as it was the case with unfriend.

Further reading.

His sharp tongue or Fëanor’s talent to insult.

Language notes /// On Galadriel.

Works consulted:

1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.

2. J. R. R. Tolkien – Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1998.

3. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).



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6 thoughts on “Are you friend or foe?

  1. Thank you for that interesting article. Another such word that I like – Unferth – is (as you know) in Beowulf but I do not think the Professor ever used it in any Middle-earth writings.

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