Monday, July 26, 2010

Don’t Refudiate Neologisms

Alaska’s ex-Governor Sarah Palin in one of her more creative moments urged right-thinking Muslims (and the more right, the better) to “refudiate” the plans for a mosque on the site of Ground Zero in Manhattan.  It seems clear that she was conflating the words refute (or possibly refuse) and repudiate to come up with a new portmanteau word—a neologism that combines elements of two different words, both of which it contains supposedly in the manner of a portmanteau suitcase. Our language is full of them.  One of the most famous portmanteau words that has survived and flourished is Lewis Carroll’s coinage of chortle, a combination of “chuckle and snort.”

Before you sic the Language Police on ex-Governor Palin, consider this. She invoked William Shakespeare to defend her creative vocabulary. And she has a point. The Bard (of Avon) is known for coining hundreds of new words or using existing words in a new context.  Among words thought to be invented or re-purposed by him are auspicious, bedazzled, birthplace, clangor, dauntless, employer, eventful, eyesore, silliness, and whirligig.  He also invented quite a few that never caught on: attasked, cadent, fracted, irregulous, propugnation, and unsisting. Do you suppose misunderestimated  might be somewhere in the canon as well?

The test for a new coinage is survival, and that depends on whether it fills a need. Carroll’s slithy (“lithe” and “slimy”) apparently was not one that did.  In the case of refudiate, it combines a word meaning “to prove wrong or to deny the truth of” and one meaning “to disown or to reject as untrue or unjust.”  A case might be made for the usefulness of such a new word, and ex-Governor Palin should claim credit for it in the next Oxford English Dictionary.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou takes a dim view of coining new words, inasmuch as he has yet to assimilate fully the ones that already exist, as you can tell by the disarray of his verbiage:
            When Sarah Palin starts to yammer,
            Pay no attention to her grammar,
            Then, if a new word she invents,
            You’d better say that it makes sense,           
            And don’t knock her vocabulary—
            Or she’ll call the constabulary.

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