Family friends, childhood friends, school friends, university friends, work friends and online friends; they come in all shapes and sizes but they are life-enhancing. A life thus unenhanced would be an unbearable prospect so – to any friends reading this – thank you. I appreciate your contribution to my life.
In other languages, people are more careful about ranking friends than we are in English. A German or Austrian distinguishes carefully, for example, between "ein Sportfreund" (with whom one perhaps plays tennis), "ein Geschäftsfreund" (with whom one does business) and "ein Freund" (who will come to one's funeral, even if it's raining). A Pole reserves the rank "przyjaciel" for the rainy funeral friend and badges someone we would call a friend as a "znajomy" or acquaintance. Most of my friends according to English usage are just a "dobry znajomy" (good acquaintance) in Polish. Make careless use of the feminine word for friend –przyjaciółka – and you may accidentally imply a degree of intimacy with a Polish lady that your circumstances do not justify.
Our friends in the Anglosphere come in different ranks too, but we don't signal that in speech. In this we are aided by the fact that we only use the polite form of the second person singular these days. "Thee" and "thou" – signals of easy familiarity – have not been heard in everyday English since my Grandad used to greet me with "How are thee, lad?" The English, and even more the Americans, will call people friends that a Frenchman would never tutoyer.
I first found that one of my best friends was entitled to that rank years ago when I had some financial difficulties. A careful chap with his money, he produced his cheque book unprompted and offered to lend me enough to tide me over. Though I didn't accept, I knew he was no mere znajomy. A former client I thought, and hoped, was a Freund revealed himself to be – by describing me as such over the telephone to a mutual acquaintance – a Geschäftsfreund. I was disappointed, but at least I knew. The imprecision of current English usage has its benefits but also its costs.
Perhaps we English-speakers choose to blur the distinctions between people ranging from those we stay in touch with by Christmas card to those to whom we bare our souls in a crisis, to be diplomatic. Or perhaps, as it seems to those whose languages retained such niceties, we are a deceitful bunch. Often, I suspect we are deceiving ourselves. When I retired I never heard again from several people I had thought of as my friends. Some such usage as Geschäftsfreund might have helped me not to fool myself into an unwarranted loyalty – and have left me with more leisure during my career to be with my family and real friends.
Some in the next generation don't seem quite to understand how friendship works. This thought (and this post) was prompted by a blog post I read this morning. An old friend (first met online and later in meatspace) expressed an outrageous view with which I could not possibly agree. We are of similar vintage but it occurred to me that, if we were millennials, that might be the end of the friendship. First I laughed, because the thought is ridiculous. Then I frowned because for some young people it isn't and I worry how that will affect life in the future.
My lady friend, rather younger than me, was surprised by the guest list for a dinner party I threw for my London friends. Guests included a Corbynite Labour person (and Evangelical Atheist), a fairly conventional (though also Atheist) Tory, a Revolutionary Marxist and a devout Catholic. She was concerned that the evening would turn into an enormous fight and thought it most unwise when I positioned the more militant atheist opposite the Catholic and the Revolutionary opposite the Tory. Yet we had a wonderful evening calling each other out on the absurdity of our various views (mine of course uniting all of the authoritarian statists against me) and ended the evening in a drunken sing-song. Afterwards she observed that the Marxist would have everyone at the table shot if the revolution ever came. I agreed but laughed; saying that he was otherwise a good, interesting chap and that as it wasn't coming his homicidal intentions were hilarious. To be honest, I don't think he'd have the zeal if it came to it. He's too nice to murder, even if he has the ideology to justify it. Like many politicos, he opines comfortably in the knowledge that he'll never get to put his ideas to the test.
Another friend of mine has got lost in the darker corners of the internet and acquired some unsavoury views. If one was not concerned about bringing down the attention of his local security forces on him, one might even say he has been radicalised. Yet he was horrified when I asked him to stop sending me daily agitprop emails and, to be honest, he had a point. A friend doesn't ask a friend to stop spouting garbage. A friend mocks a friend mercilessly for it and changes the subject. Our generation has both cheerfully exercised its free speech and not made friendships conditional on political, ethical or religious agreement. When I dined with him recently he had invited another radical guest to back him up. I made a mild riposte or two before changing the subject by embarking on a sit-down set of my best jokes. The evening went swimmingly and we all parted friends; perhaps even Freunden or przyjacele!
Free Speech is more than a slogan. In a functioning democracy, it's a way of life. Not only should we tolerate it from strangers, we should embrace it among our friends for who is more likely to save us from error? A stranger on a soapbox contradicting our opinions, or a friend around our table over a glass or nine of wine?