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Sarah Palin says she invented the word "refudiate." (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Sarah Palin says she invented the word "refudiate." (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Warren Clements: Word Play

Coin to blow and coining non-words Add to ...

Lotteries or Sarah Palin, which to choose? Oh heck, I choose both.

Commercials for lotteries and casinos are driving me mad. There's the reverse mother-in-law joke, in which a woman is so happy to have been introduced to a casino that she treats her daughter-in-law like gold instead of dirt. Then there's the tasteless spot in which a woman putters about while an agonizing distress call plays on the soundtrack. It turns out not to be a distress call. The woman has won the lottery, and this is the record of her frantic call to verify her winnings. Oh ho ho.

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"Casino" means "little house" in Italian, from the Italian and Latin casa (house, cottage). Casino entered English in the 1700s as a room used for meetings, but by the 1800s referred more narrowly to a building used for gambling. The casino is still referred to as "the house," as in "the house always wins." Thus, if you lose your house by gambling in a casino, you can rest assured that someone's house is safe.

"Lottery" derives from the Biblical story of Lot, who gambled that he could turn back to look at his wife without her turning to salt, and lost. What? Oh, sorry, I'm being told that's wrong. Lottery is believed to derive from the Dutch lotterij, which came from the Dutch lot, which meant a decision by random selection. In English by the 900s, a lot was both an object used to make those decisions and property that fell to a person by lot, which is why we speak of a corner lot.

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation prefers "gaming" to "gambling," since gaming suggests having fun and gambling suggests putting your money at risk. A July 24 article in these pages about Toronto's Woodbine Racetrack said the property's casino "will soon boast 3,000 slot machines and 60,000 sq. ft. of gaming."

"Game" derives from the Old English gamen, of Germanic origin, which meant amusement and produced the second part of backgammon. Gambling, a word traced back to 1781 by the Oxford English Dictionary, is believed to have come from gamel, a variant of gamen. Or I suppose it might have come from gam, the slang word for leg also first cited in 1781, as in, "I lost an arm and a leg at the gaming tables." But don't bet on it.

Palin and the Bard

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin created a stir in mid-July when, on her Twitter page, she called on "peaceful Muslims" to "pls refudiate" a proposal to build an Islamic centre near New York's World Trade Center site. Presumably she meant "repudiate" - to disown or reject - but in a subsequent tweet she substituted "refute," which was the wrong choice, since it means to disprove an argument. The media teased her about coining a word, and she tweeted back that "English is a living language" and "Shakespeare liked to coin new words too."

Alas for her claim to Shakespeare's mantle, Palin did not invent this non-word. On the cable show Fox & Friends on Nov. 1, 2006, U.S. Republican Senator Mike DeWine said, "I think anyone that is associated with him campaigning needs to refudiate these comments." In September of 1987, an article in The Daily Oklahoman said, "At a special committee meeting called for Wednesday, Spitz is expected to refudiate city accounts that indicate what his firms earn for sewage and sludge removal is higher than other cities pay."

But the most intriguing use appeared in June of this year, mere weeks before Palin's tweet. David Segal, in a New York Times article about the business of marijuana, wrote: "With a couple of exceptions … interviewing pot sellers is unlike interviewing anyone else in business. Simple yes-or-no questions yield 10-minute soliloquies. Words are coined on the spot, like 'refudiate,' and regular words are used in ways that make sense only in context."

Is there something Palin would like to tell us?

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