Thanks to Sarah Palin, a new word has entered the language: “Refudiate.” It showed up in a tweet that Palin sent out on Sunday: “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.”
When people started talking about “refudiate,” Palin deleted her tweet and published a new message without the made-up word: “Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real.”
The plan in question is for a mosque to be built a few blocks from the site of the 9-11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City. Palin’s new word “refudiate” (or misspelling of “repudiate,” depending on your point of view) has stirred up almost as much controversy as the Mosque proposal. Is a politician like Palin allowed to coin new words, or is that privilege reserved for the great writers like Shakespeare, who is supposed to have invented thousands of them?
I say…it’s the wrong question. English (despite the earnest wishes of many English teachers) has no authority system. No one is empowered to make decisions about usage, word coinages, and the like. Or, more accurately, we all – everyone who uses the English language – make those decisions.
If “refudiate” catches on, Sarah Palin will one day have a little space carved out for her in the Oxford English Dictionary, which tracks the history of words. It’s not the Vice Presidency, but it would be quite an achievement.
What I’d like to focus on for a minute, though, is some postmodern principles that Palin’s Twitter episode exemplifies for the rest of us. Here they are. (Those of you who think postmodern language theory has no relevance to the real world – please take note!)
1. Language is a human invention and, as such, is subject to human frailty and error.
2. Language escapes the control of the person using it. Palin thought she was making a point about a mosque and 9/11. Instead she triggered a language debate.
3. The audience helps determine its meaning. This is a corollary to #2. There’s no guarantee that your audience is going to interpret your message the way you intended.
4. Language always implies risk.
What does all this mean?
If you want to be a Supreme Court Justice someday, you’d better be very careful about the paper trail you’re creating.
If you get up in front of a video recorder and talk about race, be aware that future audiences might get a totally distorted report about what you said.
Is language relevant? I think Elena Kagan, Shirley Sherrod, and – yes – Sarah Palin would give that question an unequivocal “yes.”
And so would you if you ever – like me – ordered a pizza with peppers and were served a pepperoni pizza instead. Welcome to the slippery but wonderful world of language.