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Let's Look At The Language

December 4, 2010

Oxford's 2010 Word of the Year popularized by Palin

On Nov. 15, Oxford University Press announced that refudiate had been chosen as its 2010 Word of the Year.

A big buzzmaker in 2010, the word evokes the name of Sarah Palin, who tweeted her way into a flurry of media activity when she used it in certain statements posted on Twitter. Critics pounced on Palin, lampooning what they saw as nonsensical vocabulary and speculating on whether she meant "refute" or "repudiate."

In materials released to the press, Oxford stated that Sarah Palin "is by no means the first person to speak or write" the word refudiate, yet the media have subsequently reported that Oxford selected as its word of the year a word "coined," "invented," or "made up" by Palin.

A minor point? Not really. One of the more significant aspects of this year's Word of the Year is the fact that Palin did not make it up. Other information in Oxford's press release goes on to draw a parallel to the word "normalcy," which was the subject of attention in 1920 when presidential candidate Warren G. Harding used this supposedly ignorant corruption of "normality" in his campaign slogan, "A return to normalcy."

The connection here is that, although Palin did not invent "refudiate" and Harding did not invent "normalcy," they were each famous enough to get the attention of their critics. In both cases, the word in question eclipsed the message being delivered, which is what drives the fascination of those who observe and report on the language.

Reporting on trends in the language (without prejudicial bent) is the core of Oxford lexicography. Consider some of the finalists for Oxford's 2010 Word of the Year: Out of this year's economy came the resurrected term bankster (a blend of "banker" and "gangster" from the 1930s), but of course Oxford makes no judgment against any banker or banking institution. The popular culture gave us gleek (a blend of "glee" and "geek"), but Oxford has no critique to offer on the television series ("Glee") that spawned it. Top kill is a procedure used in the aftermath of the BP oil spill, but we are not environmental scientists and do not evaluate its effectiveness. For us, it's all about the language.

The same is true in our final selection of refudiate, which for us represents not only a word that left its mark on the year 2010, but a word worth watching. From an apolitical perspective, it has been fascinating to observe the interest in this apparent blend of "refute" and "repudiate." Although we can find evidence of refudiate's occasional appearance in the written language dating back to at least the 1890s, there is no question that its usage in 2010 by a well-known person is what drew notable attention to what has been called a "non-word." But blended words (e.g., motel, brunch, caplet, smog) are common in the English language _ so common, in fact, that those in the business of watching the language would not want to overlook the possibility that refudiate, a presumably inadvertent blend, could someday (like so many once-disputed terms) work its way into legitimate vocabulary.

The other top contenders for the 2010 Word of the Year, by the way, were crowdsourcing, the practice of enlisting a variety of individuals, often unpaid, to work on a specific task; double-dip, denoting a recession during which economic decline is followed by brief growth, followed by further decline; nom nom, an expression of delight when eating; retweet, to repost or forward a Twitter message posted by another user; Tea Party, a conservative U.S. political movement; vuvuzela, a long horn blown by fans at soccer matches; and webisode, an original episode derived from a TV series but made for online viewing, or an online video that presents an original short film or promotes a product, movie or TV series.

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? E-mail: languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically. Lindberg's columns can be found online at www.thedailystar.com/language.

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