July 19, 2010

A big welcome to "Refudiate", Sarah Palin's new word in the English Language!

I was just reading at Mediaite.com about Sarah Palin's invention of the word "refudiate" (which she tweeted yesterday afternoon), and the tweetosphere's subsequent mocking embrace of her malapropism.

This was taken down by her people & a correctly spelled one was quickly put up. "Refudiate" was already a big hit tho, & her response is endearingly both self-deprecating & aggrandizing:

She was mocked for comparing herself to Shakespeare. The headline at Mediaite was "Sarah Palin 'Refudiates' Criticism, Declares Self Shakespeare on Twitter". Okay, that's a masterpiece of a headline, but slightly false advertising, because comparing yourself humorously to a great writer is a different bird than Declaring Self. (Somewhat unrelatedly, John Lennon actually said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, but he didn't mean he wanted them to be. He was just making an interesting point that resulted in a lot of Beatles burning parties. When he later sang "they're going to crucify me," he actually was Declaring Self, but again with a wink. Luckily, bardophiles aren't generally into book-burning, and have a subtler appreciation of celebrity metaphor, or there'd be a lot of "Going Rogue" bonfires.)

I want to urge the blogosphere to back off from defending Shakespeare against Palin's comparison! She's absolutely right! And she even makes an important point that Americans especially of all English-speaking nations shouldn't forget. In France, there is a committee that makes sure no foreign words creep into their pure tongue. And they ended up with a very silly language! English has always been mostly the opposite, letting itself evolve naturally, and gladly welcoming slang, foreign words, incorrect foreign words, mistakes, malapropisms, portmanteaus, nonsense, & coinages from all corners. I think that this makes English healthier, more chaotic, more fascinating, and more honest about the nature of language than faux [sic] French puritanism. Palin was also dead-on to compare it to "misunderestimate", because a number of Bushisms were lovingly adopted by a world that hated him & are now used widely even in contexts which contain no reference to Bush. (Another word, "strategery ", was invented by Saturday Night Live in 2000 to parody Bushisms, & not only became a real English word, but was adopted by the Bush administration itself; they had an official Department of Strategery. Stephen Colbert's word "truthiness", coined in 2005, is included in the latest American dictionaries.) .

If you want to read a good book which discusses the debate between keeping English a controlled language versus letting English be an organic language, I recommend Simon Winchester's easy read The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. On the losing side of this argument was 18th century Irish author Jonathan Swift, here's an excerpt from his treatise "A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue".

There is another Sett of Men who have contributed very much to the spoiling of the English Tongue; I mean the Poets, from the Time of the Restoration. These Gentlemen, although they could not be insensible how much our Language was already overstocked with Monosyllables; yet, to same Time and Pains, introduced that barbarous Custom of abbreviating Words, to fit them to the Measure of their Verses; and this they have frequently done, so very injudiciously, as to form such harsh unharmonious Sounds, that none but a Northern Ear could endure: They have joined the most obdurate Consonants without one intervening Vowel, only to shorten a Syllable: And their Taste in time became so depraved, that what was a first a Poetical Licence, not to be justified, they made their Choice, alledging, that the Words pronounced at length, sounded faint and languid. This was a Pretence to take up the same Custom in Prose; so that most of the Books we see now a-days, are full of those Manglings and Abbreviations. Instances of this Abuse are innumerable: What does Your Lordship think of the Words, Drudg'd, Disturb'd, Rebuk't, Fledg'd, and a thousand others, every where to be met in Prose as well as Verse? Where, by leaving out a Vowel to save a Syllable, we form so jarring a Sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondred how it could ever obtain.

That is right, under Swift's proposals, we would not or should not be allowed to contract or abbreviate words, lest English be difficult to utter. It cannot be! Swift also had grievances about many 'slang' words entering the language, like "banter" & "mob", which he accused of being "invented by some pretty Fellows" & "now struggling for the Vogue." Heaven forfend! Since the beginning of time, every generation has groaned about newfangled words becoming trendy. The word "lengthy", for instance, was once thought to be a horrible American abomination.

I think the archtype for an American nonsense word becoming common in languages around the world, is "okay." The etymology of "okay" is shrouded in academic controversy, probably because some academics have trouble accepting that it could have originated in a dumb joke. To sum it up, incorrect acronyms were popular jokes in New England newspapers in the 1830s, and "O.K." (meaning 'All Correct') came to being during the presidential campaign between Andrew Jackson (who was supposedly a bad speller) and Martin van Buren (who maybe tried to re-define the acronym to stand for his nickname, Old Kinderhook.) According to the wikipedia, "The country-wide publicity surrounding the election appears to have been a critical event in okay's history, widely and suddenly popularizing it across the United States." But there you go, political humor leading to the creation of a word that's now ubiquitous all over the world. It's alternately been attributed to Greek origin, Native American (Choctaw), & African slaves, each of which is a more tidy & rational explanation, but language isn't tidy or rational.

Anyway, the speed with which trendy words or political jokes can become language has increased with the internet, so that Sarah Palin can coin a word on Sunday & I can write an essay defending it on Monday. Welcome to the English language "refudiate", whatever the fuck it means.

(PS, to prove it wasn't a typo, and actually a word that Sarah Palin thought existed, here's the archive video of her actually saying it earlier this year.)

1 comment:

Ian said...

I'm no Palin fan, but I think her comparison has a measure of aptitude. That Shakespeare coined numerous words is certainly true, and while she did compare herself to him, she did in no way "declare herself" Shakespeare. It was comparison she invoked in what seems a rather sheepish defense, not to be taken seriously by any.

Shakespeare's words were a result of his mastery of the English language; hers, prefixes or suffixes improperly affixed to words upon which she appears to have a tenuous grasp (or, in most cases, unseemly cutesy/juvenile/"folksy" gibberish).

No bard is Palin, but that's nothing anyone didn't know.