Friend / Fiend

Frenemies Forever.

Dear Word Detective: I read your columns faithfully but it has now become impossible for me to type a word and not wonder where the heck that word came from. I was sending someone an email with the word “fiend” in it, and noticed that “fiend” and “friend” differ only by the letter “r.” Is there a relationship between the words? — Bob.

There is an interesting connection between “friend” and “fiend,” though I’m not sure it ever amounted to a real “relationship.” The two words were going together for a while, it’s true. But “fiend” got a bit distracted, and after a few years “friend” decided it wanted to start hanging out with a new antonym. Incidentally, I know the feeling you describe of suddenly noticing, and wondering about, a common word. I’m lucky because this usually happens when I’m in my office, which is stuffed with ten zillion (I counted) reference books, making it, at least theoretically, easy to look things up. In practice, however, this usually involves at least twenty minutes of painfully peering at bookshelves with my head cocked at a ninety-degree angle, searching for the relevant books. I need a cat that works cheap and has really good organizational skills. Right.

All kidding aside, there really has been a historical relationship between “friend” and “fiend.” You might say they grew up together. “Friend” first appeared in Old English as “freond,” derived from the old Germanic root “frijojan,” meaning “to love” (and which is also related to our modern English word “free”). The earliest meaning of “friend” in Old English has remained the basic sense in modern English, that of, as Samuel Johnson defined it, “One joined to another in mutual benevolence and intimacy” (but not, generally speaking, including family members or lovers). “Friend” has also been a verb since the 14th century meaning “to make friends with” or “treat as a friend,” but “friend” as a verb was rarely used until 2004, when Facebook emerged from the sea and began destroying civilization.

“Fiend” had a very similar, although somewhat gloomier, childhood. It too came from an old Germanic root, in this case “fijejan,” carrying the sense of “to hate,” and in Old English it meant “enemy, hated foe.” Thus “friend” and “fiend” were matched antonyms in early English, handy opposites of very similar form and history (presumably making proofreading especially important during this period).

By about 1000, however, “fiend” had drifted from meaning simply “enemy” to meaning specifically “the enemy of God and mankind,” i.e., the Devil, Satan, Old Scratch. This left “friend” without a dancing partner, since it now seemed a bit over the top to describe someone you just didn’t like as a “fiend” equivalent to Satan. So gradually the simple opposite of “friend” became “foe,” also from Germanic roots, and eventually settled on “enemy” (ultimately from the Latin “inimicus,” meaning literally “not a friend”). “Friend” and “foe,” however, still make a nice alliterative pair for literary or poetic use.

As time went on, “fiend” was toned down a bit from “Satan” to merely meaning “an evil spirit or demon” as well as “an extremely evil, diabolical person.” By the 19th century, “fiend” had been watered down even more, sufficiently to be used to mean “someone in thrall of or maniacally devoted to something” (e.g., “dope fiend,” “skateboard fiend”).

Interestingly, unlike “friend,” “fiend” never came into use as an English verb, which is a shame. A “fiend” button on Facebook would come in handy.

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