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Sarah Palin is back in the news for matters linguistic. I’ll only briefly summarize the issue here; given the strange belief by media and Internet folks that Sarah Palin’s doings are somehow significant*, I assume that by the time you’re reading this post, you’ve already been inundated with information about this latest event.

In short, there’s a proposal for an Islamic community center and mosque, the Cordoba House, at 45 Park Place in lower Manhattan. This is two blocks from the edge of the former World Trade Center site. The Community Board for that part of New York unanimously approved the proposal, but now Real Americans like Sarah Palin are instigating a Crescent Scare against the center, essentially claiming that having a good Muslim thing so close to a bad Muslim thing in a city many of them haven’t ever been to will cause them substantial emotional duress. Or as Palin herself put it, it would be a stab through the heart.

Personally, I find her position silly; there’s no reason that New Yorkers should care what Sarah Palin thinks they should do in their city, and there’s no reason she should care what they do. In fact, the only reason I find her position at all interesting is the way she chose to express it. In a tweet, she called on “Peaceful Muslims” to “refudiate” something:

That tweet was quickly taken down (thanks to Little Green Footballs for getting the screenshot) and replaced with a similar tweet that took out not only the heart-stabbing imagery, but also the curious word refudiate, which was replaced with the more standard refute**:

But the damage was done. The blogosphere, primed by her usage of refudiate in a Fox News appearance a few days earlier, had already caught wind of Palin’s refudiated tweet. So Palin was left with little choice but to defend herself:

Yes, people create words a lot. Shakespeare is especially known for this. English, like all extant languages, is ever-changing, and there’s a lot of good to be had in allowing people to create words or mess with syntax when it’s called for. However, refudiate was an error (just like misunderestimate). That’s fine; we all make mistakes. But there is a world of difference between passing off a mistake as a word and the premeditated release of a new word.

The fact that Palin took down her original tweet, and then added not only the “refute” tweet but also another tweet that re-instated the heart-stabbing point of the original, shows that she lacks confidence in her new coinage. Those two tweets contain pretty much everything that was in the original, except for refudiate, so it seems pretty clear that Palin is trying to repudiate refudiate.

So what of refudiate? As Mark Liberman showed, Sarah Palin is not the first to use the word; the science-fiction author John Sladek used it in a short story, Answers, back in 1984. It’s popped up from time to time since then, but in all of the instances I’ve listed here (as well as most of the others I found), it’s explicitly labelled as erroneous, just as Palin has implicitly labelled it.

Personally, I find this surprising and a little bit sad, as refudiate could be a useful word for me. Sometimes someone will say something both profoundly mistaken and offensive, and I’ll want to simultaneously repudiate it (i.e., separate myself from it unequivocally) and refute it (i.e., disprove it). In fact, I’ve been noticing this feeling a lot more when I read about political news lately. Sarah Palin herself is someone whose opinions I’d often like to refudiate.

Unfortunately, Palin has miscreated refudiate, rendering it unusable. In her original tweet, it seems likely to me that the word she wants is repudiate; it’s a little unclear because the character limit forced her to omit the object of transitive refudiate, so we’re left to infer that the intended object is the mosque. The only other possible object would be Palin’s own argument-in-question-form, and presumably she’s not requesting people to disprove her claim.

Assuming that the mosque is the object, we can then be pretty sure that repudiate is the intended meaning, as you can’t refute a thing***; refuting is the act of disproving or rebutting or showing to be erroneous, which must be done to an argument, claim, belief, or something of the like. To refute a mosque would be, I suppose, to prove that it does not exist, in which case the whole tweet would become quite unnecessary. It isn’t a blend; it’s just a variant form of repudiate. Because she introduced the word in a domain already solidly ruled by another word, refudiate has no reason to catch on.

And so, sadly, the meaning that people will think of for refudiate will not be the reasonable meaning that blends refutation and repudiation into a rebuttal-and-disavowal. Worse, because of Palin’s awkward attempt to justify it away, the word will be a laughingstock for the near future. This has poisoned what could have been a good word.

But at least it gives us a cautionary tale. Refudiate coulda had class. It coulda been a contender. Instead, it’s the butt of a joke. If you have a pet word that you’ve been nurturing, and you want to see it find its way into the language, don’t introduce it as an identical replacement for an existing word. Don’t omit its context. And don’t ever treat it like a typo. Be proud of your word, thrust it into the light of day, make clear what exactly it means, and you’ll be the proud parent of a word.

*: Of course, the fact that I’m writing about Sarah Palin again means that I am part of the problem. Crumbs.

**: I say “more standard” here even though her usage of refute is still non-standard. The OED notes that pre-18th century Scotland is the only place and time when refute has been used consistently to mean “to refuse or reject (a thing or person)”. In general, refuting something is about disproving it, and it doesn’t really make sense to disprove a plan.

***: Unless you are in Scotland in the 17th century, which I remain confident Palin is not.

You might have noticed that I have a dim view of Sarah Palin.  To judge from her public persona, she is judgmental and flighty.  She either is or acts profoundly ignorant of things she ought to know, and she’s proud of that.  It seems to me that she comes to decisions without due consideration of alternatives.  In short, she calls to mind George W. Bush, who’s not someone I appreciate having returned to the front of my mind.

And, like Bush, Palin is no great public speaker. Throughout the last election, I kept thinking that she often sounds as though she’s got three sentences she’s considering saying, and failing to find any of them quite right, she just braids them together; a few words from the first sentence, a clause from the second, a few more words from the first, and end it with the third.  This happens beyond the sentence level as well; she creates a maelstrom of half-developed points, any one of which she might return to at any given time. It makes it incredibly difficult to follow what she’s trying to say, or to understand her reasons for arguing what she’s arguing.

In short, Sarah Palin’s speech basically mocks itself.  A case in point is her resignation press conference. Her explanation for her resignation was more damning than anything anyone said about it; it made little sense, substituted analogies for arguments, wandered down dead ends, and left you feeling as though she delivered a nearly-finished first draft.  Heck, no one figured out why she was resigning for a few days, because her “ethics investigations cost Alaska too much money” argument was so unclear.  But letting Palin’s words speak for themselves was just too subtle for Vanity Fair, who took it upon themselves to post how they would have edited her resignation speech.

I’ve never cared for Vanity Fair; they have some good writers and occasionally have a good story, but the whole magazine thinks itself too clever by half.  It’s just another fashion-and-celebrities rag dolled up with a bit of political analysis and artistic portraits by fashion photographers, but it thinks it’s so much more. They get into the humor biz every once in a while, but it’s always this ham-handed “isn’t this person so STUPID?” joke. Editing Sarah Palin’s speech is a prime example; there’s the potential for some fun in remedying the awkward, disorganized, and rambling speech, but the problem is that they overdo the joke. Where the situation calls for a finishing nail, they choose a railroad spike. Here’s one page with their comments:

Clearly, they want us to say: “Look at all that red pen!  Sarah Palin is a grade-A dunce!  She could never get published in Vanity Fair!”  But if you look beyond the mere proportion of black-to-red text, you start to wonder why so many changes need to be made.  Look at that first paragraph; I can agree with the removal of the resumptive we and the replacement of the awkward progressing with working for. But why remove the next sentence? It’s a joke, a bit smarmy perhaps, but if the author wants to say it, who is the editor to cut it?  Many of the edits strike me as arbitrary matters of personal taste; I’d remove a very hard that the editor left in, I’d leave alone a few sentences he changed.  I don’t really understand why the last sentence got cut, or why the bit about energy independence needed cut out of the sentence before that.  And then there’s one terrible edit, one that really calls into question the editor’s judgement. That’s the replacement of

“We’re fishermen. We know only dead fish go with the flow.”

by

“We’re fishermen, so we know only dead fish go with the flow.”

Palin clearly intended this line to be a turning point in the speech. She covered her administration’s accomplishments, preceded this line with a couple paragraphs on the current troubles and ethics investigations, and after this line she switches over to her future plans. She structured the speech to focus on this line, and delivered it as two staccato sentences in the midst of longer ones. It’s powerful, even though it’s nonsense.  One might even argue that the line’s strength comes from the fact that for one shining moment, Palin is using a rhetorical flourish competently.  (Seriously, though, what the hell is this analogy supposed to mean? If only a dead fish would serve the full term it was elected to, then oughn’t Lincoln to have remained president until 1869?)

The revision, though, makes the two sentences into one compound sentence, and jams it onto the end of the preceding paragraph, where it gets lost in a sea of other compound sentences. It has no oomph, and it’s no longer able to serve as the strong division between sections. Sure, it’s a real stick in the eye to say to Sarah Palin, “We even changed your big line,” but it’s completely unjustified and just makes the editor look petty.

In cases like these, where you want to establish that someone can’t write, the right course of action is to edit conservatively: correct the spelling and factual errors, remove some of the sentence-initial conjunctions, address her often-odd word choice, and fix the redundancies. That would still have led to a substantially reddened paper, and we could have all had a fair chuckle. Another reasonable option would be to have some more competent writer completely re-write the speech, to show what Palin left on the table by being a poor writer. Even going through and really editing it, not just correcting minor points, but moving around sentences and components of the speech to improve its flow, would have been better.  But as it stands, it just feels like an editor with a vendetta went through with a fine-toothed comb, just to show off how many different things he could conceivably object to.  I’m not saying that Palin’s speech doesn’t make her look foolish. It’s just that the edited version doesn’t make Vanity Fair look much better.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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