The Etymology of Friendship in the Context of Christ: The Dream of the Pretty Birds

There was a time in my life some years ago when I was feeling disconsolate over my perception that nearly all my friends were neglecting me. While in the midst of this pain and turmoil, I had a dream. One of those dreams that stick with you, even when it isn’t clear why.

In my dream, I was walking on a path and came near a large evergreen tree which was full of small, beautiful, brightly colored birds. There were hundreds of these birds, chattering and hopping around.

My dream made me think of those times, especially as a boy, when I’ve seen birds that I’ve wanted to be close to, admire, hold in my hands, stroke their feathers and feel their soft sheen. Birds that I’ve wanted to rest on my shoulder and stay with me a while. I’ve always envied the way birds could spread their wings and fly, unconstrained by gravity or fear of falling. I desired to be free as a bird, as they say…

In the moment my heart formed this desire, more than a dozen of these green, red, and yellow birds took flight and landed on me. They perched on my shoulders, head, forearms. Others were near me on the ground, others flew around me, looking for a spot on my body to land.

As I reached out to one bird that particularly interested me, all of them flew away except for two. One remained on my arm, which made me glad, and the other hopped around me on the ground, obviously anxious for my care and attention. I wanted nothing to do with the bird hopping around on the ground. Perhaps it couldn’t fly, though I couldn’t tell. Even though in my dream it didn’t appear any different than the other birds, I still for some reason didn’t want it on me or near me; it didn’t have any desirable qualities to me.

I awoke from the dream feeling a little chastened, even though I didn’t know what it was trying to say until later. Once I recognized the meaning of the dream I went searching for origin and development (etymology) of the word “friend” and “friendship.” What I discovered deepened my understanding of friendships, though not all that I learned was to pleasant to realize about myself.

Friend comes from German, the past tense of “to love” (think “loved one”). This sense it shares with Latin-based Romance languages such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. (ami, amigo, amico), which also means “loved one.”

Similarily in Hebrew a word for friend is ידיד (yadid) whose root means to love and has a cognate in Arabic عزیز (aziz) which means “dear.” (And neither of these Semitic languages are Romance or Indo-European languages.)

Yet in the German (and subsequently English) word for friend (freund) there is another historical strain in the word that goes back to the Indo-European root word “free.” You can hear that similarity in the first sounds of the English friend/free, and German freund/frei. And the same echo is heard in the Slavic languages (which while not Romance languages, do share common origins with them in the Indo-European proto-language). Their word for friend begins with “pri”--for example, přítel in Czech.

When I chase this concept of “free” back further in time, my dictionary informs me that the original sense means “not in bondage.” And “loved one” means, “to be fond of, to hold dear.” The Indo-European root word for both of these concepts is -preo. “Pri” in Czech, “free” in English, and “frei” in German, for example.

But what does “not in bondage” have to do with “dear one”? Indo-European linguists have suggested that the original meaning of -preo could be “dear to the chief.”

Wait, what? To make sense of this, consider that the words we inherited from the Indo-Europeans suggests that they were nomadic and warlike. There are Indo-European words for horses and livestock, and weapons, but not for agriculture. Like the Hebrew Bedouins, they were nomads, though perhaps even more warlike and authoritarian. I imagine them like the Huns, though much earlier in time, originating in Central Asia, operating as a tightly-knit, ruthlessly governed tribe that swept across Central Asia and then Europe thousands of years ago. They took what they wanted as plunder or tribute, enslaved the labor they needed, and tended the livestock that would help them stay mobile. How many people in these wandering camps were there voluntarily? How many would leave if they could, even if they were taken care of?

In these circumstances, I’ve tried to imagine what it would mean to be “dear to the chief.” What it would mean to be so beloved that the chief grants you your freedom? It is one thing to be a very highly esteemed (and well-paid) servant. There are all kinds of rewards you can give good servants –but freedom? How much would you have to love someone to give them complete freedom–even the freedom to leave you? Making it possible for him to join your enemies and turn against you? If you were the chief, knowing that all this is possible if you were to free someone, just how dear would you have to be to the chief for him to grant you this ultimate gift?

In Japanese, the word for friend is “tomodachi.” The prefix “tomo” in older Japanese includes the meaning companion or peer. The idea is of doing something together, having something in common or belonging to the same tribe. Building on the “common tribe” the tachi is a productive suffix for making plurals so “tomodachi” once meant a group of peers or tribesmen. In other words, the Japanese concept of friendship is plural, suggesting friendship includes more than just two people.

Complete freedom is the only terms under which friendship can form, and it is formed out of a bond of love, with several people tribe or band. A bonded band forged out of selfless love. A servant, no matter how loyal or capable, is not a friend. He does what he does out of duty. Friendship is only friendship when it is freely given, and freely accepted. In this post I have tried to show how this concept is ancient, older than any language or civilization currently in existence.

In my dream of the pretty birds, I could not force the birds come to me. They had to come of their own free will. If you try to capture birds and put them in cages, are they really birds any more? They are no longer free to roam the skies and be free. In a cage, birds can only be prized for their beauty, of sound and sight. But their essential nature is closed off in that cage. It takes special training (as in falconry) to call to birds and have them come to you. In their natural state, they will only come of their own accord. A trained bird can never be so dear as a free, wild bird who comes to you of its own choice. Likewise, friend who is manipulated, deceived, or forced, is not really a friend. A bird cannot be fully itself in a cage, and friendship cannot be all it can and should be when compelled.

And what of those birds who wanted me, but I didn’t want? The dream was trying to teach me that some of my criteria for choosing friends were not very good. In my dream, the bird I spurned was indistinguishable from the bird I desired. That suggests that there were good potential friends whom I was ignoring for no good reasons. There were plenty of birds who were willing to alight on my shoulder, though not always the ones I was paying attention to.

This was part of what the dream was trying to tell me: so much of my loneliness and sense of betrayal was self-inflicted. I was doing to others what I was so upset about what was being done to me!

The two essential ingredients in the formation of true friendship are love and freedom. And I find it interesting that the Savior called his apostles friends, not servants. I believe He chose His words carefully and He was telling them that they were free and beloved. They were His tribesmen, but a tribe formed out of love, not compulsion. A friend does something out of love, not duty or fear of punishment. A friend is free to leave, but chooses to stay. Our agency is most important to the Lord, so He does not compel our obedience, but only calls to us and urges us to obey Him: