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 executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He 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.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday July 27th 2010, 5:07 AM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
Corpseman. Need I say more?
Tuesday July 27th 2010, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Alan B. (Pocasset, MA)
I like upcited, indicating an elevated, excited level of upset, synonymous with a cow. (As Bart Simpson would know, "Don't get all upcited" is equivalent to "Don't have a cow.")
Tuesday July 27th 2010, 12:39 PM
Comment by: Kathryn S. (Mountain View, CA)
Sometimes the accidental coinage results in a new phrase.
When faced with a large serving of mashed potatoes, 4-year old Kate said to her grandmother, "Gramma, that's too bunch."
Tuesday July 27th 2010, 3:17 PM
Comment by: Edward A. (New York, NY, NY)
Not sure if it was an accident, but my favorite is definitely "chillax", combining "chill" and "relax".
Tuesday July 27th 2010, 4:05 PM
Comment by: Edward A. (New York, NY, NY)
For many years I have also loved the English expression "whinge", which I always assumed was a combination of "whine" and "cringe" - although I am not 100% sure that is its origin.
Tuesday July 27th 2010, 4:52 PM
Comment by: Michael F.
Underwhelmed. It is the opposite of being overwhelmed, as in "I was underwhelmed by his talent. In fact, there seems to be no beginning to this man's talent."
Tuesday July 27th 2010, 5:03 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Thanks for the suggestions, everyone!

Edward: whinge is actually a very old word (originally from Scotland and northern England -- the OED dates it back to 1150!) It's etymologically related to whine but not cringe.

Michael: For more on underwhelmed, see this Word Routes column.
Wednesday July 28th 2010, 3:42 PM
Comment by: Jeff E. (Orlando, FL)
Many people put together "giant" and "enormous" to come up with "gi-normous." My daughter coined her own version of this "bigger-than-big" word when, in Kindergarten, she saw one of Shaquille O'Neal's shoes. She described it later as "hu-normous!" ("huge" & "enormous" of course)
Wednesday July 28th 2010, 7:19 PM
Comment by: cynthia M. (el dorado, AR)
Splatter (the sum of splash + splatter) is a useful, vivid verb.
Wednesday September 8th 2010, 12:21 PM
Comment by: Gordon D. (Woodland Hills, CA)
My wife comes up with all manner of amalgamations, the lates of which is capacability, combining capacity and ability, as in "his heart just didn't have the capacability to climb the mountain."
Wednesday September 8th 2010, 3:37 PM
Comment by: Abigail W.
This isn't an amalgamation per se, as much as a couple of phrases that have reverberated through time in our family. One young boy, when visiting the barn on our farm said that it "Sniffs yucky in here". And another child, upon seeing our ducks exclaimed that they were "a bunch of ones". :)
Saturday November 6th 2010, 12:30 AM
Comment by: Patricia H. (Seattle, WA)
I'm the culprit of creating a word by incorrectly combining two. I didn't create a 'new' word, but I did streamline it and I like my word!

Surface + superficial = surficial.

It made perfect sense to me. I couldn't believe it didn't exist when I went to look it up one day. I don't recall what precipitated my searching for it in the dictionary, but I suspect it was the advent of spelling correction software. Since I started using computers heavily in the early 1990's, that allowed me about twenty-five years with that word as part of my regular vocabulary and without one correction to either my spoken or written usage! I miss "surficial" and find myself trying to slip in in now and again. I'm instantly reminded by the computer that I'm wrong... unless I "add" it to my dictionary. ;-)
Tuesday November 16th 2010, 2:52 PM
Comment by: Patricia E. (Santiago Chile)
Once I tried to find the origin of words such as caravan and woman and I decided to give them my own version:
for caravan I decided it came into life after seeing a car, a van, a car a van, one after the other: a caravan.
Then for woman, I decided it was born from the word man adding a womb to it: woman.
Crazy ideas, ha, ha!!

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