Sarah Palin, "refudiate" and new words

Commentators are having a field day with Sarah Palin's use of "refudiate" in television appearance and in a Twitter post that has been deleted. Plenty of people are taking her to task for using a word that doesn't appear in any English dictionary. Some of those people are more concerned about her overall message than about that one word. But I write about language use, and I am more interested in the word than in the politics.

As Language Log points out, Palin should have been set straight by her friends or staff before she was ridiculed by blogs that, shall we say, do not have her best interests at heart. Palin defends herself in another tweet, pointing out that Shakespeare made up words and that "English is a living language."

Indeed, Palin is right: English does change all the time. New words come into the lexicon; other words drop out or take on different meanings. When I was younger, I rarely heard or read the word "disrepect" "disrespect" used as a verb. Now it's everywhere. It's an old usage that has taken on new life, and it serves a purpose. If it turns out that "refudiate" serves a purpose not served by other words, it has a good chance of becoming part of the language.

But what about the claim that Shakespeare made up words all the time? Matthew Biberman, an English professor, points out in this post that Shakespeare is credited with the use of words because his plays are such a rich source of language. Shakespeare was also mindful of the meter of his language, and sometimes he used words in a odd way just to get the rhythm right.

Biberman notes that some of the coinages that Shakespeare is credited with were malapropisms that he put in the mouths of his comic characters. Palin's "refudiate" is a classic malapropism. She combined refute and repudiate. I think "repudiate," to reject with disapproval and condemnation," is what she really meant to say.

I am eager to see what happens to "refudiate." Will its ironic use by commentators and others lead to its becoming widely accepted? Will it land with "misunderestimated" on the pile of malapropisms? Or will it become a useful word like "bloviate," an odd word popularized by President Warren Harding?

Postscript: Someone has started a ShakesPalin Twitter feed.



This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.