What does it mean to be a ‘friend’? The word ‘friend’ is one of the rare cases in the English language whose meaning has remained consistent throughout hundreds of years of usage. ‘Friend’ is of Germanic origin and has existed in the English language since Old English. Back then, ‘friend’ existed as ‘frēond’ which was the present participle of the verb frēon, ‘to love’. The root of the verb was ‘frī-’ which meant ‘to like, love, or be affectionate to’. We can still see the remnants of this verb every day of the week- Friday or ‘day of Frigg’ is devoted to the Germanic goddess of love Frigg.
To use the word ‘friend’ in Old English was to define a relationship with strong feelings, independent of sexual or family love- a meaning that is still very similar to the word ‘friend’ we use over 1500 years later. ‘Friend’, in a period of warfare and conflict, was also defined by its antonym ‘enemy’. To be a ‘friend’ one could not be hostile towards the other- there were no friends on different sides of a conflict, and it was at this time that ‘friend’ extended its meaning to describe and define loyalty. By Middle English and beyond, a friend had the added connotation of someone who would financially help a particular institution- ‘friends of the gallery’ (late 16th century) for example. By the late 17th century friend was adopted into an adjective to mean, ‘well disposed, and not hostile’.
It’s no surprise that ‘friend’ and its positive connotations began to be adopted by various groups and institutions of English speaking society. In the 17th century ‘friend’ was adopted by The Religious Society of Friends who used the word (with a capitalised ‘F’) as the ordinary form of address, ‘A Friend’s meeting’ (late 17th century). ‘Friend’ was also used by the legal profession- my ‘learned friend’ was used to address a fellow lawyer in court (from late Middle English).
In the late Middle English period ‘friend’ began to describe a romantic or sexual partner- we see this change in the meaning of ‘friend’ in words such as girlfriend, boyfriend, lady-friend, or man-friend. To refer to a lover as just a ‘friend’ in Modern English however is considered a euphemism- ‘The boy’s mother was joined by a man described as her friend’ (mid-20th century).
Illustration: Benji Davies