'Refudiate': Why Sarah Palin's Twitter flub may outlast her

Fort Worth Star-TelegramJuly 28, 2010 

Pundits jumped on Sarah Palin when she recently tweeted that people should "refudiate" plans for a New York City mosque near Ground Zero.

"Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate," Palin tweeted.

The tweet was quickly deleted, and refute replaced refudiate, but the clips of Palin using the word on Sean Hannity's Fox News show have not gone away. Nor has the flap over how the former governor and vice presidential candidate let her linguistic slip show.

Still, while Palin is no Shakespeare — a famous coiner of words — it may be wrong to misunderestimate refudiate too quickly.

"In English, the tradition is words bubble up from the people," said Paul J.J. Payack, president of the Global Language Monitor in Austin. "If it's used, it's accepted as a word."

George W. Bush's notorious use of misunderestimate is a good example of how what's called a portmanteau word can find acceptance.

Like an old-fashioned portmanteau traveling case that opens into two compartments like a book, portmanteau words such as refudiate combine two other words in form and meaning.

" Misunderestimate did start as a joke word. It was a good joke five years ago," Payack said. "Now we're seeing it all the time. Now it's just out there."

What counts is whether a new word meets a need that the old ones don't.

"The word ... doesn't necessarily add any additional meaning beyond what is found in other individual words," Laurel Smith Stvan, a University of Texas at Arlington linguistics professor, wrote in an e-mail. "But the new term is evocative as a blend because it resonates with repudiate, refute and refuse mingled together."

But Brad Lucas, chairman of Texas Christian University's English department, is dubious.

"It's an effort to elevate one's language to sound more academic, more scholarly," Lucas said. "I don't think I'd give her an A for anything."

On Friday there were 800,000 mentions for refudiate on Google, Payack said. Repudiate, a far older word, had only 2.4 million mentions.

"While Sarah Palin already has somewhat of a reputation for malapropisms, it seems to be the power of the blogosphere and Twitter coming into play that makes this term so controversial," Stvan said. "Its circulation on the Web both amplifies commentary on the perceived wrongness of the term, while also increasing the exposure, which might end up making it seem more acceptable."

The "ultimate deciders" — another George W. Bushism — of refudiate's fate are English speakers, not the experts, provided we love it.

"Refudiate — it's not even a week old," said David J. Silva, University of Texas at Arlington vice provost for academic affairs and a linguistics professor. "We don't have predictive power. We'll find out in 50 or 100 years."

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