In the Oct. 13 New Yorker, James Wood commented at length on Sarah Palin's pronunciation of verbiage in her interview with Sean Hannity ("Verbage: The Republican War on Words"), closing with this paragraph:
Hearing her being interviewed by Sean Hannity, on Fox News, almost made one wish for a Republican victory in November, so that her bizarre locutions might be available a bit longer to delve into. At times, even Hannity looked taken aback; his eyes, slightly too close to each other, like the headlamps on an Army jeep, went blank, as if registering the abyss we are teetering above. Or perhaps he just couldn’t follow. The most revealing moment happened earlier, when she was asked about Obama’s attack on McCain’s claim that the fundamentals of the economy are sound. “Well,” Palin said, “it was an unfair attack on the verbage that Senator McCain chose to use, because the fundamentals, as he was having to explain afterwards, he means our workforce, he means the ingenuity of the American people. And of course that is strong, and that is the foundation of our economy. So that was an unfair attack there, again, based on verbage that John McCain used.” This is certainly doing rather than mere talking, and what is being done is the coinage of “verbage.” It would be hard to find a better example of the Republican disdain for words than that remarkable term, so close to garbage, so far from language.
As a parody of a highbrow sneer, this is brilliant work.
We all know that Wood, who recently praised a novel's "contribution to the Hamsun-Bernhard tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability", and suggested that "one can accept Barthes's stylistic proviso without accepting his epistemological caveat", doesn't really believe that Gov. Palin's (admittedly awkward) extempore explanation was so difficult to understand that Hannity "just couldn't follow".
Furthermore, those of us with access to web search know that "verbage", far from being a new coinage, has been a staple gripe of peevologists for years, and that even the end-rhyme with "garbage" is an old joke, recorded for several decades in the jargon dictionary's entry "A deliberate misspelling and mispronunciation of verbiage that assimilates it to the word ‘garbage'".
And we also know that the joke is a rather weak one, since the American Heritage Dictionary gives two pronunciations for verbiage (with no usage note), of which the second is the one that Gov. Palin used. (Merriam-Webster also offers her pronunciation as a second option, again without doing their readers the courtesy of pointing out that this pronunciation may lead Eton-educated literary critics to make fun of you.)
And in the end, those of us with access to the Oxford English Dictionary (and surely the New Yorker offers this service to its writers?) can learn that the earliest attested instance of the variant spelling "verbage" was 221 years ago:
1787 POLWHELE Engl. Orator III. 770 As the flippant Phrase Glides from his hollow Tongue, tho' oft debas'd By low commercial Verbage.
So, by simple Gricean reasoning, we're forced to the conclusion that Wood has crafted a merciless parody of a smug, careless, ignorant snob. Because, of course, we can reject out of hand the hypothesis that he is one.
[Update: Putting irony aside, let me try to clarify what's going on here. I don't agree with many of Sarah Palin's political views, to the extent that she has any beyond expediency. But I think it's a catastrophic and unnecessary mistake to throw her into the linguistic briar-patch as a representative of those who have a provincial accent, sometimes use stigmatized idioms or non-standard pronunciations, and don't speak in well-polished paragraphs.
That's what Jacob Weisberg did with the whole Bushisms industry, and look how well that worked. If you set up a political choice between the people who talk like Sarah Palin and the people who talk like James Wood, guess who wins?
But I also believe that it's morally wrong to try to win an argument by making fun of non-standard speech and lack of formal linguistic polish. As Colin Powell said about another irrelevant argument, "I understand what politics is all about. I know how you can go after one another, and that’s good. But I think this goes too far." ]