Sarah Palin's Creative Vocabulization

by Bill Reagan

22 July 2010

Armchair pundits lit up the blogosphere when Sarah Palin tweeted a non-word. Don't we have more important things to worry about?

Sarah Palin made a linguistic splash on 18 July by using the non-word “refudiate” in one of her Twitter posts:

Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate (@SarahPalinUSA, original post modified)

The topic of the post, a planned mosque near Ground Zero in NYC, is worthy of a frank discussion on freedom, sensitivity, and ongoing relations between the mainstream and Muslim communities in America, but that conversation took a backseat to a burst of commentary on her creative vocabulization. In a backfiring attempt to quiet the chorus of mockers, she tweeted a defense of her not-quite-poetic license:

“Refudiate,” “misunderestimate,” “wee-wee’d up.” English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!

I rarely defend Sarah Palin (then again, she rarely needs it) but I’m on her side on this one. A language needs room to breathe, and a steady evolvification allows it capture the intentions of the people using it. As with any effective tool, the user should be a part of the design process. If the linguistic scholars at Oxford American College Dictionary can deem EVOO worthy of dictionary ink (for those who have escaped the verbal reach of Rachel Ray, that’s short for “extra virgin olive oil,”) surely there is room for a realish, logical sounding word like “refudiate”. 

Because the fact is, even though it’s not a word, you knew what Palin meant. Isn’t that the essence of communication, to make someone understand what you’re trying to say? No one read that tweet and thought, “Wait, refudiate isn’t a word, so I’m confused: did she mean she wants the mosque to be built?” Weren’t we all supposed to have graduated high school with an innate ability to glean definicity from context? (We certainly should have, considering the ridiculous price of public education.) 

Besides, Palin is the not the first great American leader to make a rare blunderation of the language:

  • Ronald Reagan once said, “We are trying to get unemployment to go up, and I think we’re going to succeed”, and the blogerati didn’t explode with damnation of his political inequities; they knew that he simply used “unemployment” where he meant “employment”.

  • George W Bush’s “they misunderestimated me” is the second reference in Palin’s tweet, an insignificant linguistic error and one of a couple of Bush’s minor misstatements that can be found on the “Internets”. 

  • Even the highly eloquacious Barack Obama has suffered a slip of the tongue now and then, including making reference to Nancy Reagan having “seances” in the White House. (Of course, he was referring to Nancy Reagan’s consultions with astronomers.)

The hubbub surrounding this minor gaffe reveals the political angst festering just below the epidural of American voters. Americans are knee-jerk apologists for those leaders who representify our ideas, yet we watch the opposing partiests like film school students looking for anachronisms in period films, completely obfuscating the meaning of the dialogue because they’re trying to catch 18th century Russell Crowe wearing a wristwatch.

America is a nation of ideas more than words. Colleges do not reap steady alumni fiscality from future poet laureates who publish ethereal odes in obscure, overpriced literacy journals – they get it when the inexplicably-upright fullback once again drags three defenders into the end zone. Sorry, Ira Glass fans, but this is American Life. Any pontiflation about the inequity of reality sounds like so many ill-hatted marching band members complaining about the football teams’ new helmets. 

Palin was a point guard in high school, not a member of the debate team, and that shows in her communicatative style: it’s not about soliliquization, it’s about short bursts to get the team organized and set up to score. Let’s focus on her intelligence as a political leader, not irreverencia like her familiarity with the most obscure nuances of the world’s most complicated language. To bend a phrase from that word-coining bard, “critics, you doth protest too much.” We have more important things to worry about.

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