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I was speaking to a 15-year-old native English speaker (in Australia), who referred to someone as her "best friend". Later, she revealed that this wasn't her only best friend. She had four best friends.

She couldn't understand why that was confusing to me (and I didn't want to get into a discussion about "best" being a superlative for "good").

Is this just one girl who is using the term unconventionally, or has the term "best friend" been softened to only mean "very good friend"? (Or even more extreme, has "best" been softened to only mean "good"?)

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    It is always dangerous to take English literally. Even a 50-year-old adult might have several "best friends". "Best", when used in such contexts, does not necessarily imply "unique", only "superior". Only when used in a comparative context ("of the three, the red one is best") does it imply unique superiority. – Hot Licks Nov 3 '15 at 11:51
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    @HotLicks: I'm approaching 50, but when I was a teenager I only have one best friend, one second-best friend, etc. Of course, as a group they were my "best friends", but I would never say "My best friend betrayed me" to refer to any of them equally. – Oddthinking Nov 3 '15 at 11:56
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    Even if it is a superlative, any superlative could be regarded as having a context -- "best friend in school", "best friend outside school" for example. The context doesn't have to be explicit. Co-best friends might be vague but so is English. – Chris H Nov 3 '15 at 14:48
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    It's worth noting that the superlative can sometimes be used as an intensifier: i.e. this is most interesting means the same thing as this is very interesting. A best friend can simply be a very good friend. – Anonym Nov 3 '15 at 15:36
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    How many books are on the Best Seller List? Are there more now than in the past? – JHCL Nov 4 '15 at 7:34
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There are several things happening here, I think.

First of all, a superlative does not always have to literally refer to a singularity. Superlatives are commonly used as amplified comparatives. This can, as @Oddthinking remarks, be seen as hyperbolic use of the superlative:

We had the best time last weekend!

That doesn't mean we necessarily had a better time last weekend than we had at any other point in time. Likewise, a best friend is not necessarily a better friend than all others.

Secondly, as, others have said, best friend can be short for one of my best friends. Superlatives can be used to describe a group of items:

The three best books I have read are ...

And finally, yes, some phrases suffer semantic deflation. Even assuming that best friend can refer to one of several people, the expression best friend forever (BFF) has been in use for a while in on-line media. Interestingly, people report that they have "a new BFF", which seems contradictory to the strict semantic interpretation of the expression. It seems people use the expression rather as "a person who they see as quite a good friend at this moment", rather than "the person who will for all eternity be my one best friend". Ah, well, language is the darnedest thing!

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    I interpret the first example to, literally, mean singularity, but in a hyperbolic way. – Oddthinking Nov 3 '15 at 11:54
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    @Oddthinking It is indeed hyperbolic use. That implies a metaphor however, which is why I don't interpret it as meaning a literal singularity. If you don't mind I will add a comment about hyperbolic use in the answer :) – oerkelens Nov 3 '15 at 12:06
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    As children, my classmates and I frequently did define a single “best” friend to the exclusion of others. Because we were too young for romance but decided to inflict similar drama on ourselves anyway? – KRyan Nov 3 '15 at 16:32
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    Using strict mathematical phrasings to capture the idea, I find the use of "best" as in "best friend" or "best time" is an indication that there is no better friend or better time, as opposed to indicating that this friend/time is better than all others. Often we are unwilling to try to pick a favorite amongst our best friends (or our children!), and this construction seems to capture that. – Cort Ammon Nov 3 '15 at 19:24
  • The example with the books is what I was going to say. +1. – ApproachingDarknessFish Nov 4 '15 at 1:53
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Best friend is defined by WordNet as:

the one friend who is closest to you

Longman defines "best friend" like this:

best friend: the friend that you know and like better than anyone else

Strictly speaking, these definitions imply you can only have one true best friend.

That said, I do agree with others that it's possible to talk about several "best friends" in normal colloquial speech. Evidently, people use the expression more loosely compared to dictionary definitions.

  • How up-to-date is Word Net? Would it have picked up usage changes in the last decade or two? – Oddthinking Nov 3 '15 at 11:49
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    The online version of WordNet (v3.1) seems to be from the year 2011. – A.P. Nov 3 '15 at 11:55
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    'Evidently, [a significant number of] people use the expression more loosely compared to dictionary definitions.' means that the dictionaries need revising. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 3 '15 at 12:14
  • Providing definitions seems to be a secondary goal of WordNet. – chepner Nov 3 '15 at 20:18
  • @chepner I don't know about that. But that aside, you have a quarrel with WordNet's definitions? If so, why? What about Longman's? If you have a different authoritative definition of "best friend", I for one would be interested to have a look. – A.P. Nov 3 '15 at 20:34
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I don't see what the quandary is here.

No matter what the criteria, there's always the possibility that two or more people will score exactly the same on them. Two people may throw the same (longest) distance at a championship, which entails two winners and two best throwers for the time being.

In a more abstract way, the ordering which enables us to speak of best at all, usually admits that there can be more than one element at the top.

If the criteria are many, fuzzy, or difficult to pin down, then the qualification of being "best", I'm afraid, follows suit, making it even easier to have a cloud of the best elements.

And if there are no criteria, and one can "feel" what makes someone one's best friend, then, perhaps, one can sometimes "feel" that one has multiple best friends, too.

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    So, you wouldn't be surprised if someone said "My best friend was sick in bed, so me and my best friend went to visit her."? – Oddthinking Nov 3 '15 at 14:42
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    @Oddthinking, to me your exact example would be surprising. Instead "...me and my other best friend..." would sound perfectly normal (though it's not something I would say myself). – Chris H Nov 3 '15 at 14:45
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    @Oddthinking No more than "my grandmother was sick so me and my grandmother went to visit her". Surely you are not disputing the possibility of more than one grandmother. The problem is the phrasing, not the situation itself. – anemone Nov 3 '15 at 14:49
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    @ChrisH: Okay, that's a better example and addresses Anemone's comment too. I find the phrase "other best friend" to be surprising. – Oddthinking Nov 3 '15 at 15:16
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    "Me and my best friend"? This is an English language site, you heathen. "My best friend and I" is more like it. ;) – Matt Nov 4 '15 at 1:22
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Teenagers will say anything.

Actually, there's nothing wrong with saying "one of my best friends." And if you'll recall the Musketeers, there were four of them.

But generally, yes, when a girl says "She's my best friend," she should be implying that the person she's talking about has a unique place in her life, above her other good friends, pretty good friends, so-so friends, and just friends..

  • Sure: "One of my best friends" is like "One of my tallest friends". Or you can talk about "a group of three best friends", implying the each consider the two others as their two "goodest" friends. – Oddthinking Nov 3 '15 at 11:51
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This is not only common, but can be correct. When we talk about friendships, we're not always describing a list of friends perfectly ordered by how much we like them. Sometimes, we're just grouping them into categories.

If I talk about my acquaintances, I'm talking about people I barely know, but occasionally interact with. Friends are people I have a closer attachment to. Good friends are closer. Best friends are as close as a friend can get.

List of friendships.

So "best" is a superlative that literally describes someone as being in the highest possible class of companions.

Now, at the same time, we might hear a phrase like "she's my best friend", which tends to imply "she" is the singularly best friend the speaker has at the moment. However, it doesn't have to mean that. It could just mean "she's my friend" with an adjective to describe what level of friend.

Just like I can say "this is my hand" without implying it's my only hand, the girl can say "she's my best friend" without implying it's her only best friend. Because it can be used either way, it can become ambiguous in some cases.

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I think this is probably a case of elision. She is skipping the non-bolded parts below, assuming the implication will be understood:

She is one of my best friends.

It's that particular subset of four friends that she is calling "best".

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Best is one of the most used superlatives and people need a stronger/more intense word that can replace "best" in "best friend" as they no longer consider 'best" as an "adjective" meaning:

Of the most excellent or desirable type or quality: ‘the best midfielder in the country’ ‘how to obtain the best results from your machine’ ‘her best black suit’

Based on the definition, you can't have "the best of the best X", or "the best among best X". These words have been created to mean what is "better" than "best".

Some people use "BBF" (Butt Buddy Forever), "BFFL" (Best Friend for Life), and BFF (Best Friend Forever), or "SBFF" (Super Best Friend Forever).

"Super best" or "best of the best" nowadays seem to be the superlative of good.

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"Is this just one girl who is using the term unconventionally...?"

Yes and no. Yes, she is abiding by a convention used by teenage girls. No, it is not a convention used in proper English.

What she should be saying is "She is one of my best friends." In omitting "one of", she is implying that she has only one best friend. She either does not intend this meaning, or she is quite fickle.

"Has the term "best friend" been softened to only mean "very good friend"?

Teenage girls tend to dilute the meanings of such words by overusing them. Used by teenage girls, the term "best friend" probably just means "friend" or "person that I don't hate". Used by anyone else, the term can be taken at face value.

Note that one can have more than one "best friend", even in the common, non-teenage usage of the word. However, this requires a preceding "one of" in order to hold true. If a person says "Bob is my best friend!", that should be taken to mean that Bob is the only best friend.

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    So linguistic conventions of the sociolect of "teenage girls" is not "proper English"? Pray tell, which speakers define "proper English" in your opinion? Silly me, thinking that a language was defined by its speakers rather than professors in ivory towers... – oerkelens Nov 4 '15 at 6:47
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    Is a language redefined by the localized usage habits of a small minority of a population? – Dr. Funk Nov 4 '15 at 23:42
  • Yes, I believe it is. Or did AmE evolve from BrE because of some prescribed changes by linguists? I know historically people have tried to define language based on theoretical assumptions (like "English is a kind of Latin") but as far as I can see, their efforts were mostly fruitless. – oerkelens Nov 5 '15 at 10:33
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    I would argue that this case is an instance of the language being used incorrectly, rather than it being redefined. When people write "If they don't like it, that's there problem", does that redefine the meaning of the word "there"? I would argue that a change in meaning must be popularly accepted in order to be an actual change in meaning, as opposed to a misuse. – Dr. Funk Nov 5 '15 at 17:00
  • AmE developed from BrE when you started getting speakers of AmE with the same status and prestige as the highest-prestige speakers of BrE, so about 1776-1783 :). This is part of the reason the definition of a language as a "dialect with an army and a navy" resonates with people --- it's roughly correlated with the prestige dialects. – Jonathan Cast Jan 7 '16 at 20:14
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Yes it is still a superlative.

Notice how most answers have the word with an "s"? That is because they are pertaining to a group of people. Here, grouping a set of people doesn't have to have an existing social name already. It could be your own.

You can only have one best friend. - A single person you regard as someone who comes out on top when feeling good or comfortable communicating with.

You could also have best friends. - As in, a group of people you set as the best from all other groups of people.

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