Face Plus Book

July 8, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Facebook began as “The Facebook”. At that time, it was a borrowed phrase from the papers given to Harvard freshmen which profiled other students and staff. A book of faces that one is likely to meet, or may need to know. These sheets of paper were likely useful in preparation for careers. And from there, the developers grew the idea into an online portal which could function in the same way. When one registers on Facebook, they are still required to give an actual headshot. Antiquated as it may seem, it is one very small way to ensure that the user is actually who they say they are. A photo can certainly render a representation, but it all depends upon what the user wants to share. In real time, a face is infinitely descriptive, constantly changing and filled with muscles dedicated to expressing emotions, few of which can be caught in a single image.

Image ID: 272833877. Copyright:

Image ID: 272833877. Copyright:

From the Latin, facia, “face” is a fantastic word to trace etymologically. It has spun into a million different uses, due to its constant, physical reference. Face can be combined into literally any phrase that fits a specific connotation or conversation and still be understood universally. In other words, face carries deep, often hidden, cultural references. It has the power to act in any number of metaphors. For example, the Webster's Unabridged Dictionary lists more than 50 uses for face. Common phrases include (but are not limited to): face to face; make a face; face the music; put on a bold face; lose face; and save face, just to name a few.

Facebook is not yet in the Webster's or Merriam-Webster, but it may one day appear there. In the meantime, it is really interesting to develop an understanding of what the name implies and how it changes (if it does) the cultural understanding of “face” itself. “Face” can mean the physical front of the head. It can also refer to the features as representative of an emotion or expression. Being face to face can be interpreted as both aggressive or intimate. Thinking of one's face most assuredly places an image in front of you. It asks you to think of, or look directly at, a very physical, real being.

The term “book”, likewise, conjures up a very physical and clear object. Yet it also has over 50 definitions in Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. Phrases that include book are such as: cook the books; throw the book at; one for the books; and book value, just to name a few. Classically, “book” has been understood to be a “set of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets of paper” ( Not so in the case of Facebook. It is neither paginated (though it has pages for each friend), nor is it authored. Facebook's binding is the single solitary being – you – who creates links to many other chains. It is neither literary nor artistic. Often pedantic and full of anecdotes, marketing and family updates, facebook is the rare combination of something that is completely other than what it purports to be. It is an electronic representation of a face (a being) in textual form (and not necessarily contextual form).

The interesting development of an idea like facebook is that as we consume the product, use the word and support the interface, we continue to construct and change the terms face and book. How are they affected? How is language affected? How is custom affected? As always, technology pushes us to view ourselves from afar and understand how we have constructed our world.

If you are on facebook, check out our page and tell us what you think of the etymology of facebook.

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