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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Column: Refuse to refudiate

The New Oxford American Dictionary recently chose its “Word of the Year” for 2010. Was it hashtag? To Wikileak? Vuvuzela? Nom nom? Nope. The most important word has been crowned: refudiate. Gasp! Some of you might be scratching your head. Is this “refudiate” actually a word? Urban Dictionary says yes, but your grandma’s moldy Merriam-Webster disagrees.

The origin of this gem traces back to America’s original “mama grizzly” Sarah Palin. “Refudiate” discovered its popularity in July 2010 as a result of a Twitter blunder. While trying to sum up her feelings in 140 characters or less, Palin tweeted: “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.” According to the Oxford University Press blog, refudiate is a blend between “refute” and “repudiate.” The verb loosely means “to reject.”

Palin received a lot of criticism for her “Palinism” in July. Despite the naysayers, “refudiate” became Merriam-Webster’s “Word of the Summer.” It was the most searched word on the dictionary’s website, yet it doesn’t even have an entry. So, is refudiate a new word that high school students will have to add to their SAT vocabulary lists? Or, is the word just riding a prolonged wave of its 15 minutes of fame from going viral? Well, don’t expect “refuel” to be getting a new neighbor anytime soon. Oxford and Merriam-Webster lexicographers have no current plans to add refudiate among the ranks of “proper English” words. I have a feeling Microsoft Word will be putting the red squiggly line of doom under the word for a while to come. (Which also comes up with the spelling of my first name, but hey, I still exist!)

In response to the bad press, Palin fought back with another tweet in July: “‘Refudiate,’ ‘misunderestimate,’ ‘wee-wee’d up.’ English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!” As much as it pains my inner literary snob to say those two names in the same sentence, the hockey mom has a point. Shakespeare has been credited with introducing over 1,700 words into our lexicon. Some of our most common words, including “eyeball,” “excitement” and “worthless,” all owe their birth to the Bard. Like Madonna, English is in a constant state of reinvention. Definitions mature and words die. English also breeds with other languages. Who knew words could have such a scandalous life?

In today’s constantly changing world, language must be elastic, or else it will become obsolete. How would we convey the idea of a retweet if we didn’t have a word for it? We could say “I’m-using-your-idea-by-reposting-it.” But, that’s not going to work. The seven-character word is a lot faster.

Language is like Play-Doh. (No, you can’t eat it.) It starts off in that classic yellow plastic cup, and it’s our job to mold it into whatever we need or desire. In the words of Tim Gunn, we must “make it work.” Imagine you have been given the task to make a green replica of the Deathstar, but you only have blue and yellow Play-Doh. Either you’re going to fail your mission or you’re going to blend them together and hope all the imaginary people in your creation don’t get lost looking for their TA’s office.

On an episode of her reality show “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” that aired a few weeks ago, Palin tried to play off her “refudiate” tweet as a mistake. She told her husband: “I pressed an F instead of a P and people freaked out.” Although this story has no validity, since she used the word on Fox News before tweeting it and she applauded herself for making up new words in the spirit of arguably the English-speaking world’s most influential poet and playwright, I understand why she wants to sweep this incident under the rug. The language we use to express our ideas directly correlates to the ideas we have. Therefore, we must pass judgment on the vessel of language in order to extract its message. If you say something stupid, people are going to think you are stupid.

But, we all do it: typos, mispronunciations, incorrect conjugations, blends. (Sorry to break it to you, but we are not robots. Steve Jobs hasn’t gotten on that yet.) It’s not that we lack a competence of language, although that sometimes really is the case, we just might have had a bad performance. These mistakes, whether intentional or not, are what keep English alive.

Care to refudiate what CORRIE JACOBS said? Direct your words to cljacobs@ucdavis.edu.

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