By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D.
There once was a gal from Wasilla,
Fond of making up words as she willa,
Though shooting a moose might seem pretty obtuse,
By quitting her job she’s made millya.
Last month when the ex- governor of Alaska offered her opinion on a proposal to build a mosque in the vicinity of the September 11th site via Twitter it became the perfect storm.
Palin’s tweet: “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.”
While some might focus on the entire message, English teachers like me only care about one thing. Refudiate.
Last time I looked, Refudiate is not a word. Nada, zilch. It’s not in the dictionary. Period.
Now there are a few ways to look at Sarah Palin’s use of “refudiate.” It’s clear that refute and repudiate are lurking in the background somewhere. My view is that it’s a non-word and sets a bad example for students of the English language.
Palin’s response: “‘Refudiate,’ ‘misunderestimate,’ ‘wee-wee’d up.’ English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!” You Betcha.
A person who creates new words, or makes a point of using them, is called a neologist. In his book, Presidential Voices, author and noted linguist Allan Metcalf points out that to date, George W. Bush and Thomas Jefferson are front runners among presidential neologists. Jefferson is said to have originated over 100 new words or phrases. And “misunderestimate” is a Bushism.
Metcalf believes whether we like it or not, we’re all accidental neologists – the nature of American English makes it impossible not to be. So when we add prefixes and suffixes – such as an “ism” to a president’s name – we become neologists.
When Palin and Bush coined their respective terms, they added neologisms or new words, to the English language. Now whether or not they make it into a dictionary is up to the lexicographner.
The debate then becomes: Is it the job of a dictionary to direct how words should be used, spelled, or pronounced, or should a dictionary simply document the current usage of the language?
I believe neologisms need to be used deliberately. Clearly, this is not the case here. For this ill-starred word is a bare-faced attempt of Palin’s to cover her malapropism in a smog of Shakespearian reference. Very “slickery” some malapropists would say.
Many Palin enthusiasts are mad at the liberal media for being so critical of Sarah all of the time. The common refrain seems to be that she made a mistake, and we all have made mistakes like that. True enough, but she didn’t say she made a mistake, she claimed that she was doing her part to evolve the English language.
Compare her behavior to George W. Bush who was so little troubled by his language blunders that he even read aloud from a book of Bushisms, laughing at his own mistakes, at a Texas Celebration of Reading early in his presidency.
As a result, I refuse to repudiate Sarah Palin on the mere grounds that she tried to pass off a verbal blunder as some sort of new word, a “Palinism” if you will.
Shakespeare created phrases more than new words, but the point is that they only became part of the language when they became common currency. Unless we all start using “refudiate” it will remain a simple slip of the tongue.
My guess is that “refudiate” won’t end up in a dictionary too soon. It’s “Much ado about nothing.” Like Geoge W. Bush’s “nucular,” it will do the rounds and provide endless opportunities to poke fun at Palin, but the already existing words of “refute” and “repudiate” will continue to crowd it out.