When Sarah Palin used the word "refudiate" in a Twitter pronouncement about the Cordoba Center, she was widely mocked for the non-word, and especially for later comparing her coinage to that of William Shakespeare. But University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman says "refudiate" might actually be entering the English lexicon. Sometimes when a single person coins a word, even accidentally, our modern system of far-reaching, immediate communication makes it possible for that word to enter the popular language with surprising speed. Liberman begins by passing along the comments of Ian Black:
Since it was first used by Palin, and then commented upon by the media, I've heard the word [refudiate] used a couple of times in everyday speech. Both times it was used in a playful, ironic way. ... I actually think "refudiate" is a useful invention, whether intended or not by Palin.
Liberman explains that such portmanteau words are quite common in the modern age, citing spork and bridezilla among others. Refudiate has one very specific and recent predecessor: "There are fewer that were promoted by a public figure's creative mistake, but one precedent is George W. Bush's misunderestimate." It was a mistake that has "caught on" both as a joke and because it can be useful at times. Though the usage is often ironic, both misunderestimate and refudiate are becoming real words.
But oh how times have changed. In a 1920 campaign speech, then-Senator Warren G. Harding entered the word "normalcy" into popular language. Unlike the Palin and Bush inventions, "normalcy" is far more useful than it is humorous. Liberman pines, "Historians may rank Harding as one of the worst presidents in American history, but this was clearly a man who knew how to use a thesaurus."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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