"Dictionary love for Palin"

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There was some grumbling on the American Dialect Society list last week after the New Oxford American Dictionary announced its selection of refudiate as Word of the Year (like Christmas decorations, these days the WOTYs go up before people have even ordered their Thanksgiving turkeys). The choice was a blatant publicity stunt, some said, and besides the word wasn't coined by Palin — indeed, it wasn't a coining at all, but a mistake. As Jonathan Lighter put it, "It's a gaffe no matter who uses it… So it isn't a good word for a serious dictionary to lionize, if you ask me."

But others defended the choice in the name of fair-&-balanced even-handedness. Ron Butters, a sometime NOAD consultant, charged that the critics were being selective:

So [the NOAD editors] are whores when they jump on Palin's word but not whores when they promote "truthiness"?…Why does it really matter that she misspoke–and was clever enough to make a virtue of it–whereas the "truthiness" people set out to find fame by promoting a stunt word… [Anyway] if linguists really believe that whatever it is that the people choose to say is OK–if we are really opposed to prescriptivism and proscriptivism–then how can we object even to a dictionary reporting a usage from a source that millions of Americans admire and respect, whether it is a right-wing entertainer such as Palin or a left-wing-beloved entertainer such as the truthiness guy?

Is any of this worth bothering about? Not for its own sake, but it foregrounds a paradox that runs deep in modern lexicography

No one doubts that the purpose of these WOTY announcements is to get ink (or "ink"), even for those, like the ADS, who don't have anything to sell. And on the face of things, the choice was a PR win. The story was picked not just by the standard news media, but by sources from Politico to TheStreet.com. NOAD even scooped Paul Payack's "Global Language Monitor," an entity that exists with no other purpose than to get its name into the newspaper. Refudiate came in fourth on Payack's list (spillcam was first), suggesting a rare lapse of PR savvy.

Still, no one doubts either that the WOTY designators take a delight in announcing their selections. Lexicographers and linguists are inveterate word-watchers, whose hearts beat faster whenever some new lexeme swims into their ken. And so much the better if it's the result of one of those processes that transcend the routine operations of word-formation — a blend, a folk etymology, a portmanteau, an analogy, a loan, an eggcorn, or an onomatope. (Those processes are responsible for six of the ten words on NOAD's WOTY shortlist: crowd-sourcing, vuvuzela, webisode, bankster, gleek and nom-nom, "an expression of delight when eating.") So it's understandable that they should want to bring out the gems of their collection every year for a nonjudgmental show-and-tell.

But who's kidding whom? At some level, the people at NOAD had to know perfectly well that the chief interest of the story was that a dictionary — and mind you, an Oxford dictionary — had singled out the item, with all the implications of offical approval. (I think of CNN's headline when the OED announced that "doh!" would be accorded an entry back in 2001: "Doh! Homer is an English Classic.")

True, the editors made it clear that the selection of refudiate didn't mean the word would be included in the dictionary. But journalists aren't known for paying much attention to the small print, particularly when it's likely to consign the story to the bottom of page 23 with no run-over. It was entirely predictable that everyone would treat the selection as an honor, under headlines like "Sarah Palin Word Scores Dictionary Praise," "Palin's word-coining gets double honours," "Palin Exonerized by New Oxford American Dictionary," "Sarah Palin's bad vocabulary validated," and "Embracing 'refudiate.'"

Bloggers and blog commenters interpreted the selection as an honor, too, wherever they were coming from politically. On the left, people were indignant that NOAD would bestow its approval on a gross illiteracy, with some suggesting a political agenda and others just an abdication of lexicographical responsibility:

This has to be a joke. Absurd. Would be interesting to see who's running the show at the OED.

Wow. Enshrine the ignoramus and call it good.

So when did Rupert Murdock buy Oxford University Press?

The New Oxford American Dictionary staff has finally come out of the closet, and its members are Republicans, fringe Republicans. They care more about promoting a political buffoon and her regional gibberish than promoting the English language as used by intelligent people…. I will no longer look to the NOAD for guidance in speaking and writing the English language.

If one is going to lower their standards and expose their ignorance, it's going to be New Oxford American Dictionary for embarrassing themselves for adopting a word that's made up. The publishers are probably Republicans, hence the spectacle.

One of the great engines of dumbing down the English-speaking world for the last fifty years has been our dictionary makers. Around 1960, they dropped their traditional role of trying to guard traditional correctness in usage, and opted for a newly democratic role of legitimizer of any dumb, erroneous usage ordinary people actually indulge in, in their hapless illiteracy.

On the right, most applauded the selection as a vindication of Palin's usage (though there were a few eyes raised heavenwards in the general direction of William F. Buckley):

She made a typo on twitter and the jackasses on the left had a field day. But who laughs now that “refudiate” is the Word of the Year as determined by the people who produce New Oxford American Dictionary?

Sarah Palin is now in a class with William Shakespeare; one who has coined a word in the English language that has a uniquely new precise meaning that did not exist before.

The lefty elite have been saying she is mangling the English language, instead she is expanding it… Funny

And in another coup over her critics, Palin's use of the word "refudiate" won the endorsement of a decidedly academic crowd.

Everything she touches turns to gold. She just got a word into the New Oxford American Dictionary. Freaking unbelievable.

And in a demonstration of the principle that conscience makes descriptivists of us all, one commenter at National Review took the occasion to accuse liberals of hidebound purism and moral absolutism:

How do liberals think words enter the English language, or any other language for that matter? WFB often quoted one of his professors who said that in language there are no rules save that of usage. We're not dealing with moral absolutes here.

You could take this all, of course, as just one more confirmation of the public's failure to understand that the dictionary is simply "a record of the language," as lexicographers have always liked to say. But dictionaries never record the language indiscriminately. When I look up a word like repudiate, I expect to find a definition based on the usage of the people that the eighteenth-century philosopher George Campbell called "authors of reputation," a group which might include William F. Buckley or George Will, but which does not include Palin or Glenn Beck (you can supply your own equivalents on the left). At a certain point, of course, an unauthorized usage can become so widespread that it has to be acknowledged — mitigate for "militate," for example, or infer for "imply" — but here you expect to see some monitory note or label, or the dictionary isn't doing right by its readers.

That is, it's the business of the dictionary to confer legitimacy on some sources and some usages and not on others. If it didn't, it would fail its readers. When it comes to the interesting or important words, that is, the dictionary is never a record of "the language," but only of the way it's used by a certain set of its speakers. That set changes from one word to the next, of course: the people whose usage is authoritative in defining ironic or repudiate aren't the ones you'd go to to find out the meanings of annuity, prefix, or bling, and it's an important part of the lexicographer's job to link words with their proper authorities and subdiscourses. But historically, the items that are crucial to the dictionary's symbolic role are the descriptive or evaluative terms which play a central role in our discourse and which we look to linguistic rather than technical authority to define for us: words like vilify, traduce, simplistic, ironic, figurative, admonish, representative, infer… and repudiate. If a dictionary doesn't do justice to these words, no other features can redeem it.

So it's no wonder that people are alarmed when a reputable dictionary seems to be anointing Sarah Palin's usage as a worthy precedent for a new word in this category. Refudiate is very different from Obama's "wee-weed up," whose inclusion might be seen as trivializing the dictionary (which is what people might say about items like doh), but not as compromising its claim to semantic authority.

Now the NOAD people would say that selecting refudiate as a WOTY candidate has nothing to do with legitimating it as a usage or even as a word. But the premise of the NOAD's list of candidates is that these are items the editors have circled as they were trolling for potential new entries. Indeed, in their disclaimer they explained that they had "no definite plans to include 'refudiate' in the NOAD, the OED, or any of our other dictionaries," with that coy "definite" implying that they weren't averse to kicking the idea around. And by way of justifying the item's potential candidacy, they announced that they had determined that it was in fact a genuine word with an independent meaning:

From a strictly lexical interpretation of the different contexts in which Palin has used "refudiate," we have concluded that neither “refute” nor "repudiate" seems consistently precise, and that "refudiate" more or less stands on its own, suggesting a general sense of "reject."

In other words, far from merely "mashing up 'refute' and 'repudiate,'" as the NY Times blogger Nick Bilton put it (see "A Palin Flub Becomes a 'Word of the Year'"), Palin had discerned a hitherto unnoticed semantic gap in the language — the absence of any word that expresses "a general sense of 'reject'" — and deftly coined a new lexeme to fill it.

That wording alone tells you that the editors are thrashing here: "a strictly lexical interpretation of the context"; "consistently precise" — those are the kind of phrases a desperate linguistics undergraduate tosses out on an exam in the hope they'll catch some favorable wind. And the fact is that nobody, the NOAD editors included, believes for a moment that Palin coined refudiate as a deliberate blend (after all, she herself disowned the item at first before retroactively claiming it as an invention in the course of embardening herself). And from a "strictly lexical interpretation of the context," whatever that may be, it's clear that she meant to ask "peaceful Muslims" to repudiate the mosque, which they were in a position to do, rather than to reject it, which they were not.

In fact repudiate and refute make for an awkward blend, since they presuppose different relations between the subject and the object. You repudiate the positions you are associated with; you refute the arguments of your antagonists. I can refute Pullum and Zwicky's theory of cliticization, but the best they can do is repudiate it. (People who try to demonstrate the usefulness of the blend usually wound up surreptitiously switching subject NP's: "We need a word that captures and conjoins the meanings of refutation and repudiation," Bill Kristol wrote; "To save the country from the ravages of contemporary liberalism, we have to refute liberal arguments and see liberal politicians repudiated at the polls.")

Now NOAD's editors certainly didn't have any political motive in any of this. Actually, I doubt it even occurred to them that their choice of refudiate would be interpreted not just as legitimating the term, but as vindicating its utterer — and my guess is that for all the wide coverage they got, their PR people weren't happy to see people associating the dictionary, quite unfairly, with the political right. What drove the editors to disingenuousness, rather, was the need to square two sometimes antithetical commitments. On the one hand, there's the anti-authoritarian, all-welcoming logopandocy that's implicit in their naturalist enthusiasms for the queer and curious. On the other is the authoritative responsibility with which people invest their dictionary and which pays their way — and which has been intrinsic to the project of lexicographic description since the eighteenth century. Or to put it more simply: they wanted to give pride of place to an utterance that had briefly turned lexical analysis into a partisan sport (a brilliant blend? an illiteracy?), but in so doing, they were obliged to come down on one side of the debate, and whether they intended to or not, to legitimate the item as a real word with a real meaning.

Anyone who has worked in lexicography has to be sympathetic to the problem. It was a conflict I was always having to come to grips with when I was writing usage notes for the American Heritage Third Edition and I kept find myself saying things like "A great many people say such-and-such, and really it's perfectly natural, but it doesn't have authoritative precedent on its side and some people get shirty about it, so prudence recommends that you shine it on." I have the feeling that this tension between the prescriptive and descriptive imperatives of lexicography is unavoidable; it's constitutive of the whole enterprise. Though there are times when it's advisable not to foreground the contradictions quite so dramatically. In retrospect, the NOAD people should probably have gone with gleek.


  1. Thomas Nash said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

    Putting analysis on a gaffe is problematic at best. I can appreciate refudiate's accolade inasmuch as it gathered a lot of attention as far as word-coinings go in non-linguistic/non-lexicographic circles, but the fact that it was a slip remains, and analysing a mistake won't get anyone far.

  2. Rubrick said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

    Prof. Nunberg, you stretch my vocabulary like no other. "Embarden", "shirty"… delicious. I thank you.

  3. GeorgeW said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 9:39 pm

    Shouldn't the test for dictionary recognition be the degree of circulation a word enjoys. It seems to me that the method of its creation whether by gaffe or clever word formation should be irrelevant.

    I wonder how much circulation 'refudiate' has acquired as a word apart from snarky or defensive comments by those of us who have an opinion about Palin (which is almost everyone in the U.S.)

  4. Mark F. said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

    GeorgeW – Yes, for including a word in a dictionary, regular use as a real word is key. But declaring something "word of the year" is not the same thing, and, according to GN's post, "the editors made it clear that the selection of refudiate didn't mean the word would be included in the dictionary."

  5. Dan K said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

    I love the word "refudiate," and I'm glad it's doing so well. But is anyone sincerely describing this as some kind of vindication for Palin? I'm asking this question sincerely, not rhetorically, because I want to find those people and have a few words with them. We were all alive back when this happened. She wasn't trying to fill a lexical gap, she was trying to use existing English words (and she failed, the kind of minor failure most of us have every day).

    GN: Well you'd better free up your weekend. This was the predominant reaction among conservatives: see here, here, and here. And the majority of liberals, too, read the selection as an attempt to vindicate Palin, though they weren't buying it — see here and here, for example.

  6. Joshua said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 1:36 am

    If the NOAD editors had named "potatoe" their word of the year for 1992, I doubt Dan Quayle's supporters would have considered that a political victory for them.

  7. Barrie England said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 3:49 am

    Here's a reminder, if anyone needs it, of the OED's selection procedure:

    'To determine whether a word has caught on, we normally require several independent examples of the word being used, and also evidence that the word has been in use for a reasonable span of time. The exact span of time and number of examples can vary from word to word: a word may be included on the evidence of only a few examples, if these are spread out over a long period of time. Conversely, a large number of examples collected over a short period of time can show that a word has very quickly become established.'

  8. groki said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 4:41 am

    Actually, I doubt it even occurred to them that their choice of refudiate would be interpreted not just as legitimating the term, but as vindicating its utterer

    you're in the biz, GN, so I'm bound to consider your characterization of the NOAD's attitude here. I also appreciate the "constitutive" tension they face.

    still, how could professional communicators be so blind to the predictable effect their announcement would have?

  9. maidhc said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 6:11 am

    I haven't heard anybody use "refudiate" other than referring to Palin's original usage. That would seem to indicate to me that there is no perception that this term provides a usage that was not available before.

    "Misunderestimate" is rarely used other than in reference to former President Bush, whereas his coinage of "the Google" has spread more widely (along with "the tubes"). So "misunderestimate" has a subtext of "the Dubya phenomenon" whereas "the Google" is more "rightwing but not up to date with technology".

    "Cromulent", "embiggen" and "cruft", all Simpsons words, continue their path to acceptance. The first two, IMO, have the subtext "I'm hip and I like to play with language", but "cruft" I see as filling a need for a new word (at least in the web development community).

  10. GeorgeW said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 7:05 am

    @maidhc: I agree. I think that actual usage of the word, not just references to it, should be the criterion for WOTY. However, filling a lexical gap should not be. A new word could displace an existing one or cause it to shift in meaning.

    Wasn't "the Google" a McCainism?

  11. Fred said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 7:16 am

    "Cruft" a Simpsons word? OED has a 1959 citation.

  12. Rod Johnson said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    Yeah, "cruft" is old. The Jargon File has it as a back-formation from "crufty," with, alas, no dates cited.

  13. Darrell said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    I protest. "Gleek" already existed at least as early as 1992, when I was a freshman in high school. It's a verb, and means "shoot saliva directly from the little glands under your tongue." (The past tense is "gleeked.") This unsavory action was demonstrated for me (or at me) on several occasions during that year.

  14. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 10:59 am

    Joshua: Well, it was obvious that Quayle was not trying to coin a word, whereas it's possible to imagine that Palin was. (I don't think she was: I think it was just a mistake; but this isn't so obvious no one can think otherwise.)

    I've certainly seen 'refudiate' used, not just mentioned, in actual calls for someone to refudiate something, though always with a degree of irony. I can well imagine that the word will spread, and lose its specific connection with Palin (as 'internets' is losing its specific connection with Bush), in which case it will be appropriate to put it in dictionaries – though it's too early to say yet.

  15. Ben Zimmer said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 11:32 am

    Darrell: Check out Grant Barrett's Dougle-Tongued Dictionary entry for gleek, with citations for the salivary sense going back to 1988. (And for Shakespeare, gleek meant 'to trick; to make a gibe or jest.') Of course, none of that history has much bearing on its current use to refer to hardcore fans of the show "Glee" (blending glee and geek).

  16. Anthony said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    Groki writes: "still, how could professional communicators be so blind to the predictable effect their announcement would have?"

    There's a theory of publicity which says that no publicity is bad publicity, also stated as a directive "Say what you want about me, just spell my name right". Even if the folks in Oxford are not fully attuned to the American political scene, they probably were aware that selecting a Palinism would get them far more publicity than almost any other word they could choose. People who would never have seen the item otherwise, and who may not even be aware of the existence of the Oxford Dictionary, will now be aware that the Oxford Dictionary *has* a Word of the Year, and will subliminally absorb the idea that the Oxford Dictionary is pretty authoritative, perhaps even more so than the Webster family.

  17. John Cowan said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    NOAD is edited by Americans, and for all I know they work in New York (where there's an OUP office) or even Kankakee (where there is the Internet).

  18. Kylopod said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    >whether it is a right-wing entertainer such as Palin or a left-wing-beloved entertainer such as the truthiness guy?

    He's talking about being balanced and then refers to Palin as an entertainer?

    And anyway, truthiness wasn't a gaffe, but a deliberate, self-conscious coinage, just like Lewis Carroll's many coinages (a few of which entered the language). Besides, I'm still not clear on what the point of the word "refudiate" is, what special meaning it has distinct from "repudiate." Whenever I hear people use it, it's invariably alluding to Palin, whether mockingly or admiringly. "Truthiness," while still closely associated with Colbert, seems able to make sense on its own. Even if it eventually fades from the language, it has potential staying power.

  19. Darrell said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    Ben Zimmer: Thank you for that. I wasn't aware of the Shakepearean meaning, or of the Double-Tongued Dictionary. Even so, I'm afraid I can't change my feelings about the show "Glee" and its fans.

  20. Darrell said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    Or rather, I can't change my perception that they're referring to themselves as little shots of spittle. Which is no skin off my back, frankly.

  21. Otter said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    Kylopod says:

    He's talking about being balanced and then refers to Palin as an entertainer?

    She resigned her elected office some time ago, is not a candidate for any office at present, and seems to derive her income from speeches and a reality television show. What is she other than an entertainer? I thought GN was admirably precise.

    And why isn't the inclusion on the shortlist of bankster, a term popularized by left-wing blogs, not part of the discussion?

  22. Bill said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    In fact repudiate and refute make for an awkward blend, since they presuppose different relations between the subject and the object. You repudiate the positions you are associated with; you refute the arguments of your antagonists.

    This would make it a useful word for one who can't remember what their last position on the subject was.

    Seriously, refute and repudiate are not really such opposites. "Refute" means "disprove"; I can (and have) refuted my own position. I may then go on to repudiate it — or I may stay quiet and hope no one noticed.

  23. wren ng thornton said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

    In fact repudiate and refute make for an awkward blend, since they presuppose different relations between the subject and the object. You repudiate the positions you are associated with; you refute the arguments of your antagonists.

    If one is to validate the blend, perhaps the point is precisely that awkwardness. It's not uncommon to want to argue against a position without specifying whether one is associated or anti-associated with it (whether due to devil's-advocacy, secrecy, uncertainty, or conflicted feelings). There's often some amount of awkwardness to those situations, and almost always some awkwardness in trying to explain to people how the argument does not indite your personal feelings or allegiances on the matter.

    Though, honestly, I've found far more need of a positive variant of this meaning (i.e., unspecified advocacy rather than unspecified rejection).

  24. Kylopod said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 5:51 pm


    First of all, the statement calling her an entertainer was from Ron Butters, not GN.

    Second, Palin has remained dominant in Republican politics in the last year, having played a strong role in the midterms by rallying up the base and marshalling in the nomination of "Tea Party" candidates against establishment Republicans. She had a number of high-profile failures, such as Joe Miller in Alaska, but she also had some successes, such as Rand Paul in Kentucky. And if the polls are to be believed, she is currently one of the front-runners for the 2012 Republican nomination for president. Sorry, but facts are facts. You won't get much argument from me about judging her as a ridiculous political figure, but dismissing her as merely an entertainer is wishful thinking.

  25. groki said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 10:56 pm

    Kylopod: but dismissing her as merely an entertainer is wishful thinking.

    St Ronnie was an entertainer prior to being governor and president, so I wouldn't say either "dismissing" or "merely." should Sarah Silly wind up as head clown in the center ring, I will be sad but not terribly surprised.

    in any case, "political involvement/power" and "entertainer" are not mutually exclusive (especially in the theater of the absurd we're fed these days): both entail appealing to and moving people, and both rely on a kind of flim-flam.

  26. groki said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 11:27 pm

    @wren ng thornton: perhaps the point is precisely that awkwardness.

    nice analysis, which also touches on some of the hypocrisy / cognitive dissonance her fans must deal with. (and some of my own, too, I must admit.)

    (whether due to devil's-advocacy, secrecy, uncertainty, or conflicted feelings).

    to add a couple more: duplicity and mendacity. ;)

  27. Mike said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 11:37 pm

    And here I thought this was a refutable dictionary.

  28. Kylopod said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 12:13 am

    Reagan was an entertainer in a strictly factual sense: he was a Hollywood actor, though he quit that occupation long before becoming POTUS. Calling Palin an entertainer isn't a factual statement, but a form of hyperbole meant to suggest she's an unserious media whore. I'm no more of a Palin fan than you are, and I happen to agree with that judgment. But I like to make a distinction between a statement of fact and an insult.

  29. Guy said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 2:13 am

    After reading some of these of the comments, I confess I have been unable to refrain from a good chortle

  30. Matt McIrvin said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 7:39 am

    "Misunderestimate" is a perfectly sensible, useful word, I'm glad Bush coined it (if he did), and I think it was considered absurd only by association with him. "Refudiate" I don't see filling a gap.

  31. Benvenuto said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    One might feel that the word "reject" itself pretty well expresses "a general sense of 'reject'". Not sure that can really be portrayed as a glaring gap in the market.

  32. John Cowan said,

    November 24, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

    And people who think refute does not mean (among other things, of course) 'reject' are guarding the barn a hundred years after the horse has left it.

  33. Bloix said,

    November 26, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    This is Palin's latest:

    "I want to help clean up the state that is so sorry today of journalism," explains the conservative favorite. "And I have a communications degree. I studied journalism — who, what, where, when, and why — of reporting. I will speak to reporters who still understand that cornerstone of our democracy, that expectation that the public has for truth to be reported. And then we get to decide our own opinion based on the facts reported to us."

    It's as if she learned English as a second language – or as if she still speaks in another language and it's run through an internal Babelfish. "The state that is so sorry today of journalism"? Would any native speaker of English identify that as an utterance by another native speaker?

    I'm beginning to think that her problem is not just that she's stupid – I think she he has some sort of minor brain damage.

    [(myl) This is not unusual for unedited transcripts of extemporaneous speeches.]

  34. Kylopod said,

    November 26, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    That sure does read funny. But I confess that I've never heard her speak this badly before–she's been inarticulate, but never in a Babelfish sort of way. She may indeed have some kind of a learning disability (as some have speculated Bush has), but l.d. people can be very bright.

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