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What we talk about
when we talk about friendship

by Diane Nicholls

Next in the series of articles on metaphor

• Introduction
• Friendship is love
• Friendship is closeness
• Friendship is sharing
• Friendship is brotherhood
• What is the difference between a friend and a lover?
• Further reading
• Next in the series


A dictionary is far more than just a list of words in the language with their definitions and details of their accompanying grammatical behaviour. It is a vast repository of information about the culture and attitudes in the countries where that language is spoken. It is a snapshot of the way we see things and feel about things, of the images and metaphors which we use, consciously or unconsciously, when we talk about any subject in our lives. Examining and understanding, en masse, the body of vocabulary and phrases which relates to any given subject is a useful way to discover the ideas and attitudes embedded in the words we use. It is also an interesting and efficient way to expand and enrich one's vocabulary.

Unlike idioms, which generally allow very little freedom for variation or invention, metaphors can be adapted, built upon and played with, so long as the central idea remains intact. Once we have grasped the core ideas relating to a topic in English, we can start to use these to create our own metaphors using synonyms to make our language more fluent, inventive, poetic, or even amusing. These novel uses may even catch on and find their way into future editions of the dictionary.

This month we look at friendship. What do we talk about when we talk about friendship?


Friendship is love

Love is at the very heart of the word friendship. Etymologically, friend means 'loving' as it has its root in the past participle of a prehistoric Germanic verb meaning 'to love'. Similarly, the ultimate root of the group of words including amity, amicable, amiable, is the Latin verb amare, meaning 'to love'. The heart, the metaphorical seat of love, is a central idea in words we use to describe friendships and friendliness. Concord, which is defined as 'friendship and peace between people or countries', literally means 'hearts together' (from com, meaning with, and cor, meaning heart). Cordial, meaning 'friendly' also comes from the stem cor, and comes ultimately from Latin cordialis, meaning 'of the heart'. When we talk about our friendships, we are talking about a relationship of love.


Friendship is closeness

We often describe our friends as close friends, creating an opposition between passing acquaintances, people we just know, and those we know well and like a lot. We feel a strong bond with our close friends and also talk about the ties of friendship. This same image of closeness is at the root of the word affinity, which started out with the less abstract meaning of 'border', suggesting an image of being side by side with somebody, or in more modern terms, shoulder-to-shoulder. We even refer to people's friends as sidekicks or, in Australia, offsiders.


Friendship is sharing

Many words relating to friendship are formed around ideas of eating and living together. Convivial comes from Latin convivialis, which in turn came from convivium 'feast', from vivere 'to live'. A companion is, literally, someone you share bread with, Latin panis meaning 'bread'. Mate came into English from a Middle Low German word meaning the same - 'someone you share food with' - and which is also where we get the word meat from. Comrade, camaraderie and comradeship all have at their core a sense of 'sharing a room', from Latin camera meaning 'room'. Though it is not certain, it seems likely that the word chum is a 17th-century shortening of chamber-fellow and was the slang word for a roommate at Oxford University. Our ideas of friendship are founded on metaphors of physical closeness and the sharing of food and accommodation.


Friendship is brotherhood

Parallels are constantly drawn between friends and blood relations. Close male friends often call each other brother or bro. The word pal, is the Romany word for brother and was borrowed from that language in the 17th century. The Latin word frater, meaning 'brother', is the source of English fraternity ('feelings of friendship, trust, and support between people'), and fraternize ('to spend time with someone as friends'). Brotherhood is defined as 'the friendship and support that a group of people, especially men, get from one another'. Actually, it seems unlikely to me that a group of women would refer to their friendship as 'brotherhood'. And though the word sisterhood is used, the dictionary definition makes it clear that this term is more to do with loyalty between women with a common cause than to do with friendship per se. Also, women more rarely refer to their female friends as sister, and sis, which we might expect to be used as a female equivalent of bro, is defined in MED as only being used for real sisters. Still, the link between friendship and blood relationships is strong in our language. Where I live, in East London, young people, in particular, commonly call each other blood, which I assume is a part of the same metaphor. In many dialects, cousin or cuz, is used in the same way to elevate the status of friends to that of members of the family. The Hollies' song He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother is the strongest lyrical expression of this metaphor that springs to my mind.


What is the difference between a friend and a lover?

So, if we talk about our friendships in terms of love, physical closeness, sharing, living together and familial connection, how does a friendship differ from a romantic/sexual relationship? The only difference in this list between friendships and romantic relationships is the metaphor of family connection. Perhaps this difference is drawn to underline the fact that it is not usual to have a sexual relationship with somebody you are related to, and so, if you are metaphorically related to somebody, having sexual relations would be crossing a barrier into another domain. But is sex, then, the only difference between friendship and romantic love?

A look at the way we talk about these two types of relationship reveals even greater differences. In the November 2003 issue we looked at what we talk about when we talk about (romantic) love. The main metaphors highlighted there were: love is illness and suffering; the lover is mad or a fool; love is hot and love burns; the beloved must be conquered; relationships are fragile; the rejected lover is rubbish. We get a quite different picture when we look at how we talk about friendships.

Rather than burning us, friendships are warm and cosy. Rather than being fragile or brittle, friendships are described as firm, strong, or stalwart (meaning 'having a worthy foundation'). Friends don't split up or break up, they lose contact or drift apart. Those friends who do fall out can make up. Though the metaphor of physical closeness holds for both types of relationship, lovers are described as together or an item, whereas friends are described as being side-by-side, rather than mingled into one. The strongest difference is that the lover is stricken with love, is passionate ('suffering'), becomes infatuated ('made foolish') and is often mad/crazy/gaga/nuts about the person they love, whereas there is no such thing, at least in our normal vocabulary, as 'mad, passionate friendship'.

Another characteristic that friends and lovers do not share is the fact that friends come in many varieties and can be described in many ways. We have different types of friend according to where or when the friendship was established: school friends, college friends, work friends, family friends etc., whereas a girl/boyfriend or husband/wife is either precisely that or a former or ex-girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife. Friends are described as good/close/great/dear/bosom/faithful/
/best/old friends to distinguish them from other friends, whereas you are unlikely to hear anybody refer to their partner as their 'good girlfriend' or 'bosom husband', and an old friend and an old boyfriend are two quite different things.

A possible conclusion when we look at the words we use to talk about friendship is that we see our friendships as more stable, more manageable, less fragile, and more varied and open to change than our romantic relationships. This may also be the source of the blood-relationship metaphor, suggesting that we see our relationships with our friends in the same way as we see our relationships with our siblings - important, lasting, dependable yet changeable, able to withstand more of the vicissitudes of life. My brother and I see each other very rarely but I know he is always there. We may have a long-lost brother, or a long-lost friend, but a 'long-lost girlfriend' is not a girlfriend anymore.

The metaphors and expressions listed above are all taken from the Macmillan English Dictionary and are not intended as a comprehensive list. We would be pleased to hear from any reader who can suggest any other friendship metaphors in English which are not covered here.


Further reading

The Language of Metaphors, Andrew Goatly (Routledge, 1997)
Metaphors We Live By, G. Lakoff and M. Johnson (University of Chicago Press, 1980)


Next in the series

Next month, we will take a look at what we talk about when we talk about honesty and dishonesty.