The idea of applying frenemy to contentious geopolitical relations—similar to Steyer’s debate usage—reemerged in April 1953. It was Winchell again, straying from his usual celebrity gossip to make an observation about the leadership of the Soviet Union, then undergoing a power struggle after the death of Joseph Stalin. Winchell asked in his column, “Howz about calling the Russians our frienemies?”
American writers weren’t the only ones using the word frenemy. Jessica Mitford, an English journalist and activist who escaped the aristocratic life of her famous sisters to settle in the U.S., wrote in 1977 that frenemy was “an incredibly useful word that should be in every dictionary, coined by one of my sisters when she was a small child to describe a rather dull little girl who lived near us.” In an essay titled “The Best of Frenemies” that appeared in both the Daily Mail and The New York Times, Mitford mused, “I wonder whether most of us do not, in fact, spend more time with frenemies than with actual friends or outright enemies?”
It would take another couple of decades, however, before frenemy became more firmly established in the cultural consciousness. In the 1998 hit song “You Get What You Give,” by the Los Angeles–based band New Radicals, the front man Gregg Alexander sang of “frenemies, who when you’re down ain’t your friend.” The rap group Arsonists titled a track “Frienemies” the following year. But it made a bigger splash in 2000, when the HBO show Sex and the City aired an episode called “Frenemies.”
Throughout the aughts, frenemies grew into the go-to term for celebrity pals who clashed in the public eye (think Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag from The Hills). From pop culture, the term made its way back to politics. After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, it soon came out that he was considering appointing his erstwhile rival from the primaries, Hillary Clinton, to be his secretary of state. In The New York Times, Maureen Dowd wrote about the news in a column titled “Team of Frenemies,” playing off Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet, Team of Rivals.
Talk of frenemies even penetrated the White House briefing room. Josh Earnest, the last of Obama’s press secretaries, was confronted with the word in two different press briefings in 2015. In April of that year, one reporter asked, “Are the Russians friends? Are they foes? Are they frenemies?” And a few months later, Earnest fielded the question, “How would you describe the U.S.-Pakistani relationship now? Are we frenemies?” Earnest chuckled and asked, “Is that a technical term?”
Meanwhile, old political rivalries have retrospectively received the “frenemy” treatment. When the working relationship between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill was hailed as a model of bipartisan cooperation by both Obama and Mitt Romney in a 2012 debate, O’Neill’s son Thomas P. O’Neill III looked back on that history in an opinion piece for The New York Times titled “Frenemies: A Love Story.” And going back even further, the feuds that Alexander Hamilton had with Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison (as dramatized in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton) have even elicited the “frenemy” tag. Starting this weekend, the Virginia Museum of History & Culture is launching an exhibit called “Founding Frenemies: Hamilton and the Virginians.”
By now, frenemy is sufficiently entrenched in the lexicon to be included in major dictionaries from Merriam-Webster, Oxford, and American Heritage. And in politics, it’s commonplace enough that The Washington Post can easily call Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden “longtime frenemies” in a headline. So perhaps the more appropriate question about Steyer’s invocation of the term would be: How did it take so long for frenemies to show up in a debate?