Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

"Refudiate" and Other Accidental Coinages

The dust has settled a bit since last week's Refudiate-Gate, when the blogosphere went into a tizzy after Sarah Palin used the word refudiate in a Twitter update — and then defended her coinage by likening herself to Shakespeare. Now that we've gotten the predictably overheated reactions from the left and the right out of the way, let's take a look at this particular Palinism with a calmer perspective.

For anyone who missed the brouhaha the first time around, posts on Language Log and Motivated Grammar provide a good overview. The executive summary: Palin used the word refudiate, blending refute and repudiate, in a July 14th appearance on Fox News, and then used the same word in a Twitter update on July 18th. Someone must have pointed out the errant usage, since her tweet was deleted and replaced with one using refute. But the genie was out of the bottle, and Palin followed up with another tweet reading:

"Refudiate," "misunderestimate," "wee-wee'd up." English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!

Misunderestimate is of course a classic Bushism, while wee-weed up is one of Obama's more unusual contributions to the lexicon: in August 2009, he said, "There is something about August going into September where everybody in Washington gets all wee-weed up,'' apparently meaning that people were getting unnecessarily agitated.

It was one thing for Palin to draw a parallel to the last two presidents and their linguistic innovations, but playing the Shakespeare card ratcheted everything up a notch. Soon, Twitter was full of Shakespearean lines given a Palinesque spin, from wags using the ShakesPalin hashtag. Liberal pundits had a field day, as when Andy Borowitz predicted of a Palin presidency, "Her first official act will be to cancel the agreement between nouns and verbs. Next, she'll replace the English language with Palinese: a language known only to her."

Meanwhile, on the other end of the political spectrum, William Kristol of The Weekly Standard embraced the coinage: "We need a word that captures and conjoins the meanings of refutation and repudiation." Of course, Kristol meant that the word was needed in order to "refudiate liberalism" — an admirable example of taking linguistic lemons and making lemonade.

Some have observed that Palin isn't the first to invent the word refudiate. Patrick Galvin of Politico notes a couple of recent uses, such as Sen. Mike DeWine's statement on "Fox & Friends" in 2006: "I think anyone that is associated with him campaigning needs to refudiate these comments." And on Language Log, Mark Liberman points to a playful usage in John Sladek's 1984 collection of science-fiction short stories, The Lunatics of Terra.

Even earlier is this glaring example that I found in the Atlanta Constitution of June 21, 1925: a headline reading "Scandal Taint Refudiated In Teapot Case by Court, Fall Says in Statement."

The headline refers to a court ruling in the Teapot Dome scandal that rejected accusations of fraud against former Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall and his cronies in the oil business. A Fall press release interpreted the verdict as "refuting all taint of scandal," and the hurried headline writer must have mashed up refute with repudiate, just as Palin would 85 years later.

Is this all just a tempest in a teapot? (We could make it a Tea Party pot for Palin's benefit.) Probably, given how Palin continues to be a lightning rod for commentators hanging on her every tweet and Facebook update. But if refudiate now enters the American political vocabulary — either sarcastically à la Borowitz or sincerely à la Kristol — it wouldn't be the first time that a slip-up from a public figure gets enshrined in the lexicon.

George W. Bush's misunderestimate, cited by Palin on Twitter, is in fact an apt precedent. Like refudiate, it's an accidental blend (of misunderstand and underestimate) that, it could be argued, yields a fusion greater than its individual parts. (I'm reminded of the old commercials for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.) Also like refudiate, Bush wasn't the first to come up with misunderestimate, even if his high-profile usage launched it into the public consciousness.

As is so often the case with " portmanteau words" that combine phonetically and semantically similar components, it's very hard to create something brand-new, either intentionally or unintentionally. But if there's anything that Refudiate-Gate has shown, it's that we are constantly reinventing language by making use of the material available to us, whether our chosen medium is lofty poetry or off-hand tweets.

What's your favorite accidental coinage? Let us know in the comments below!

Update: I talked about refudiate and other invented words on "The Leonard Lopate Show" (WNYC Radio).

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

OUPblog, the official blog of Oxford University Press, weighs in on "refudiate."
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