Friend? or Just ‘-Friendly’?

You will remember the moment, when Frankenstein’s monster utters the word “Friend?” It may be the single best line of dialogue in James Whale’s 1931 movie classic.

My bit of linguistic poking today isn’t about changing social attitudes or expanded horizons of understanding, but about the way the suffix  -friendly is being asked to do so much work for us.

The compound  noun+friendly  has  become a soft marker of empathy, or sensitivity, or acceptance.  It isn’t about friends or friendship, but it seems to indicate that something you might be concerned about is also a concern of an organization, a space, or a business.

Being [something]-friendly has become a way of signaling that a particular group, otherwise potentially singled out for exclusion, will not be. It’s not the same as saying “Everybody’s welcome here.” But it’s become a pragmatic solution in our out-of-joint contemporary world.

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online nicely parse  -friendly as  “used at the end of words to mean ‘not harmful’” and “used at the end of words to mean ‘suitable for particular people to use’.”

The examples given are  “ozone-friendly aerosols,”  “dolphin-friendly tuna (=fish caught without  harming dolphins),”  and “a family-friendly restaurant.” In each case the modified noun is being described as purportedly having a positive view of the element before the hyphen.

One doesn’t have to be Ludwig Wittgenstein to see some problems with these explanations. “Dolphin-friendly tuna” might as well be the plucky nonconformist tuna helping their dolphin buddies in a sequel to Finding Nemo.

Socially minded  critics of adspeak will remind us that an aerosol’s agency, much less its opinions, are pretty hard to figure out, and that the tuna has no view of the dolphin here, except in not being a dead tuna found in the presence of a dead dolphin.

The online Oxford English Dictionary’s definition 7c for the adjective friendly explains the suffix ­-friendly as meaning  “likely to benefit or cause minimal harm to.”

You might sail the 7c’s, though,  before discovering an explanation for a term I encountered last week at a Chicago restaurant, where the menu proudly declared it was gluten-friendly.

Was gluten welcome? I asked my server what the menu meant, and learned that many of the dishes had little gluten, so that persons desiring to limit their gluten intake could calculate accordingly.

Here -friendly meant something like “including in small doses the thing you probably don’t want.” (I  thought of Monty Python’s rat restaurant where the waiter confesses that the one item that didn’t have rat in the title has only a little rat in it.)

It’s hard to measure friendship, qualitatively much less quantitatively. We think of friendship as an abstract noun — less torrid than passion,  more textured than affiliation — and we don’t think of it as a relationship to be measured in degrees. A best friend is more than a good friend, though by how much is anybody’s guess.

Yet other linguistic friends of -friendly demonstrate  that we’ve long cast about for language to mark degrees or qualities related to friendship.

For example, the OED cites sporadic appearances of the adverb friendlily, dating back to the 16th century. If you have a friend named Lily you might try slipping this word into conversation.

Tennyson concocted the delicious compound friendly-fiendly, which might be brought back into service more easily than friendlily.  Friendly-fiendly would fit nicely into a wide range of contemporary relationships, from the personal to the political.

And while I’m in the Victorian era, those right-minded 19th centurions also invented the friendly lead, a term I’d never heard of before exploring the OED for this post.

A friendly lead isn’t a noncompetitive sales tip. It’s  a fund raiser to help pay for funeral expenses.

Frankenstein’s monster, of course, has no friends. He’s hunted down and disappears in a conflagration, which is Latin for possible sequel.

But we’re all so earnestly, anxiously  friendly now. We’d be nonjudgmentally monster-friendly.

If only we could be friends instead.


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