Beyond Words - Language Blog

Language and Politics: Palin Refudiates Critics

To invent words or not to invent words– that is the question.

On Sunday, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin opted for the first choice. In a series of messages from her Twitter account, Palin commented on proposed plans to build an Islamic Cultural Center blocks away from the World Trade Center site. She initially tweeted, “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate” [sic].

Online heckling about the word “refudiate” began almost immediately, and Palin quickly deleted the message. Instead of replacing it with a new message containing the word “repudiate” she wrote, “Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan…”. Shortly afterward, she defended her use of her invented word and compared herself to Shakespeare:

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

Palin certainly isn’t the first politician/ celebrity to create a neologism; however, she might be the first to say she was following in the footsteps of the Bard while doing so. Regardless of whether or not she (or her social media consultant) mistakenly typed “refudiate” into Twitter, the situation reminded me of one of my favorite TED Talks.

If you’re a regular Beyond Words reader, you probably know our writers love the lexicographer Erin McKean, and you might have already seen her wonderful Talk on the evolution of the dictionary. During her 15 minute presentation, McKean actually encourages viewers to invent words. She discusses the invention and legitimacy of words:

People say to me, ‘How do I know if a word is real?’ Anybody who’s read a children’s book knows that love makes things real. If you love a word, use it. That makes it real. Being in the dictionary is an artificial distinction. It doesn’t make a word any more real than any other word. If you love a word, it becomes real.

McKean goes on to metaphorically describe English as a hanging mobile that moves with any change to the language. Its movement, she says, is beautiful, no matter what the language looks like when it stops. Shakespeare definitely set the mobile of the English language in motion. Among the many words he invented are auspicious, bloody, bump, castigate, critic, exposure, hurry, lonely, obscene, premeditated, road, and suspicious.

Is Palin this generation’s Bard of Avon? Our homegrown Bard of Alaska? Probably not (Going Rogue is a far-cry from The Tempest), but if she can learn to really love the word “refudiate,” she can keep all the glory that’ll come with its existence.

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