Sarah Palin's use of the nonword "refudiate" set off a storm of mockery — and support — among partisans.
Sarah Palin's use of the nonword "refudiate" set off a storm of mockery — and support — among partisans. Rich Pedroncelli/AP
The most revealing thing about politicians' linguistic gaffes and malaprops is the weird reactions they evoke. Take Sarah Palin's refudiate. She first used the word in a TV interview, calling on Barack and Michelle Obama to "refudiate" the NAACP's charge about racist elements in the Tea Party movement. Then lest anyone think it was a slip, she posted on Twitter asking peaceful Muslims to "refudiate" the Ground Zero mosque. That tweet was deleted almost immediately and soon replaced by one that used reject. But Palin wasn't about give ground. In another tweet, she suggested that she had deliberately coined the word. She went on, "English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!"
Like any successful politician, Palin is adept at making lemons into lemonade. But it was left to her champion William Kristol to whip the item into a lemon chiffon cake. In the Weekly Standard, he applauded Palin for enriching the English language with a blend that perfectly captures the agenda of contemporary conservatism: to refute liberal arguments and see liberal politicians repudiated at the polls. "Say it loud and say it proud. Refudiate liberalism now!"
But it was clear in the context that Palin didn't coin refudiate in a flash of mavericky creativity — that it was just her version of repudiate. Plenty of other people have gotten those same wires crossed in the past; the New York Times language columnist Ben Zimmer found examples of refudiate going as far back as 1925.
In fact the age of Google has showed us just how hard it is to commit a truly novel error or to coin a truly novel word. Somebody else almost always got there first. That's one thing at least that Palin and Shakespeare have in common: both of them have had their linguistic originality exaggerated. If we could Google up Elizabethan English as thoroughly as we can the modern language, we'd probably discover that Shakespeare didn't invent 90 percent of the words that make their first recorded appearance in his plays. Leapfrog? It would no doubt turn out that every Stratford schoolboy knew the word years before Shakespeare used it in Henry V. "All's well that ends well"? He lifted that from Christopher Marlowe's blog.
Palin could have picked up refudiate from someone else or come up with it on her own. One way or the other, the question is why she didn't correct it along the way, before she got called on it and felt the need to defend it. After all, the course of our lives is strewn with abandoned misconceptions about words. I'm always struck by how tenacious these are — a word will go right past me five or ten times before I suddenly have this Duh! moment. As in, "Duh! it has a c in it." Or "Duh! Compendious doesn't mean comprehensive at all."
But Palin apparently never had Duh! moment with repudiate, probably because she hasn't encountered it often enough. People don't use it a lot in everyday conversation, as in "I used to think Peter Frampton was cool but I totally repudiate that now." You have to frequent the places the word hangs out in, the kinds of books and periodicals that have semicolons in them.
But not even Palin's most ardent supporters would claim that she's been a great reader. They prize her for her attitude and authenticity, not her erudition.
Of course there are other people who blanch at the thought of a head of state whose speech flows so far from the stream of literate English prose. Fair enough. But inarticulateness doesn't preclude political competence — think of Dwight Eisenhower. As the linguist Mark Liberman put it in the Language Log blog, "Politics is not a vocabulary contest." And it's a mistake to read too much significance into these slips and solecisms.
Take the way the logotariat reacted to Palin's use of verbage in place of verbiage during the 2008 campaign. It's a very common error, and in its way a logical one. The i in verbiage doesn't make any sense if you think as most people do that the word is related to verb and verbal. (It actually comes from the same root as warble.) But in the New Yorker, James Wood took verbage as Palin's own invention and called it a perfect example of the Republicans' disdain for words. Verbage — "so close to garbage, so far from language."
Where do you begin with that? With the remarkable condescension of "garbage" (so close to "trash")? Or with the insolence of imagining that faulty usage betrays stupidity and turpitude? One way or the other, it's a form of smugness that transcends partisan differences — people on the right are just as quick to ridicule Obama and Biden for their mistakes. Yet the well-spoken aren't necessarily wiser or better than the rest of us. Most of the horrors that the human race has had to endure in modern times were inflicted at the bidding of men who spoke in shapely grammatical sentences. Unfortunately, eloquence doesn't come next to godliness: a devotion to language will have to be its own reward. Could we just celebrate that?