Ian Best writes:
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, as if the person knew it was a Palin-invented, non-legitimate word. I.e. "You need to refudiate that comment!"
My question: At what point does a word become a legitimate word, one worth keeping, if it is used often enough in everyday speech, even ironically?
I actually think "refudiate" is a useful invention, whether intended or not by Palin. "Refute" and "repudiate" have distinct meanings, and it is certainly possible to do both simultaneously. Politics and origins aside, what do you think about the word itself, and about the chance that it will catch on?
There are certainly plenty of portmanteau words that have come into general use, from brunch and spork to bridezilla and wikipedia. There are fewer that were promoted by a public figure's creative mistake, but one precedent is George W. Bush's misunderestimate.
Misunderestimate is generally taken to be a blend of misunderstand and underestimate; like Sarah Palin's refudiate, it was sporadically invented by others over the years before President Bush used it; and like refudiate, it has caught on both as a joke and because people sometimes find it genuinely useful. In fact, of course, Sarah Palin cited it in defense of her own coinage.
Another relevant example may be then-Senator Warren G. Harding's use of normalcy in a 1920 campaign speech. This is not a portmanteau or blend — it's just a way of forming the noun meaning "state of being normal" — and it had been used from time to time since the mid 19th century, but Harding's usage was the subject of considerable discussion, e.g. by the NYT on 7/22/1920:
If Senator Harding likes the word "normalcy" he has a perfect right to use it. Mathematicians used it before him long ago, and nobody can question successfully either the propriety or the comprehensibility of the term. The word, however, is unfamiliar to most people, and therefore its employment in a political campaign is of dubious wisdom, as it will distract attention from what the Senator says to the way he says it.
To do that is usually a mistake for either orator or writer. Still it isn't always a mistake — sometimes meaning can be fixed in the minds of hearers or readers by a noticeable peculiarity of locution or vocabulary.
Why either a mathematician or a candidate for the Presidency should consider "normalcy" better than the familiar "normality" is a puzzle beyond the solution of an inquirer who is neither, but such a preference does not need explaining. There are even people who like "abolishment" better than "abolition".
An audio recording and transcript of the speech in question is available here. The "normalcy" passage, featuring Harding's peculiarly mechanical delivery:
America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality but sustainment in triumphant nationality.
For me, the most striking lexical feature of this passage is the sub-slogan "not experiment, but equipoise": imagine it on a bumper sticker. 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.
[Or rather, as William Safire points out in the entry on normalcy in his Political Dictionary, Harding knew how to hire a man who knew how to use a thesaurus:
... his "literary clerk," Judson Welliver, the first fulltime White House speechwriter ...
Safire passes along this analysis of why Welliver might have chosen normalcy, and why it caught on:
James McCawley, the great linguistics professor at the U. of Chicago, wrote the author in 1992: "You express puzzlement that normalcy caught on and some other neologisms didn't. One reason that the use of normalcy in Harding's address was so catchy is that with that form of the word the alliteration is between two syllables that bear the primary stress (no'strums, no'rmalcy) whereas if Harding had said norma'lity instead, the alliteration would have been on a syllable of that word that had only secondary stress."
Safire -- who ought to know -- expresses the opinion that "It is unlikely that ... Welliver ... thought that through in creating the alliterative passage", but this seems to elevate rational choice to a level that Jim McCawley would have never have attributed to a poet or a speechwriter. Or for that matter to any other human deciding what to say.]