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Words are often created by mistakes. How aggranoying is that? (Charles Krupa/AP)
Words are often created by mistakes. How aggranoying is that? (Charles Krupa/AP)

Howard Richler

Don't be so quick to repudiate Sarah Palin's 'refudiate' Add to ...

I don't need to be subliminable ." (George W. Bush)

"My education message will resignate among all parents." (George W. Bush)

"They misunderestimated me." (George W. Bush)

"Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate ." (Sarah Palin)

Welcome to the Grave New Words of U.S. Republicans.

Sarah Palin's recent tweet was quickly deleted and "refudiate" was replaced with "refute," but the clip of her using the word on Sean Hannity's Fox News program remains with us. Commentators gave mixed reviews to Ms. Palin's coinage. The Weekly Standard's William Kristol said: "We need a word that captures and conjoins the meaning of refutation and repudiation." What the right-wing commentator didn't add is his particular belief of the need for a word to refute and repudiate left-wing ideas. A more typical reaction was provided by satirist Andy Borowitz: If Sarah Palin ever became president, "her first official act will be to cancel the agreement between nouns and verbs."

And if you believe Canadian politicians are only capable of fake lakes and not fake words, I know of at least one instance when a Canadian pol was guilty of fabricating the latter. John Kushner, a Calgary city councillor from 1976 to 1986, once told an assemblage: "I'm not sure many of you can understand all this legal jargle." Actually, "jargle" is shown as an obsolete word in the Oxford English Dictionary that means to "utter a harsh or shrill sound." Of course, the word Mr. Kushner was groping for was "jargon."

People will often utter words that do not exist such as "interwingling," "comfortability," "controversible" and "irregardless." These last two, surprisingly, are in the OED. "Controversible" is an obsolete word meaning "open to controversy"; the correct modern form is "controvertible." "Irregardless" is listed with the disclaimer that it can be found "in non-standard or humourous use." Children, in particular, are quite prone to creating words. When my partner's daughter was an infant and downcast, she would tell her mom she was "upsad," melding "upset" and "sad" presumably to communicate an emotional state stronger than each one alone.

Words, however, are often created by mistakes. "Humble pie" should really be rendered as "umble pie," as "umbles" refers to the edible inner parts of an animal, usually a deer. In days of yore, anyone who ate an umble pie was in a position of inferiority and would probably develop a sense of humility from eating entrails. Similarly, "shamefaced" derives from the Old English "scamfaest" that meant "bashful" or "held fast by shame." Hence, the second element of "shamefaced" was originally identical to "steadfast." The morphing of the second syllable occurred in the 16th century and probably as a result of the similar sound of "faced" to "fast" and to the fact that, logically, the bashfulness would be shown in one's face. Another example is "nanny" goat, which was originally an Annie goat, the female equivalent of a Billy goat, and probably morphed because "nanny" was once a common nickname for Annie.

The word "nickname" was originally rendered as an "ekename," because "eke" is an obsolete word that means "additional." Similarly, the original word for a "newt" was "ewte," and one can easily see how "an ewte" became "a newt." The process often worked in reverse with words that started with "n": "An adder" was "a nadder," "an apron" "a napron" and an auger" "a nauger." Also, "an umpire" was at first a "noumpere," a word that derived from the Old French nonper, "not equal" and thus qualified to settle disputes.

Some words are named because of a misconception. The crayfish, for example, is not a fish but a crustacean. In the 15th century, the word was rendered as "crevis," the Middle English word for crab; a century later, the second syllable was corrupted in "fish." Similarly, your "helpmate" may be your partner, but the second syllable is actually a corruption of the obsolete noun "meet" that meant "an equal." So when God, speaking through the filter of the King James Bible, tells Adam He will provide "an help meet for him," he is informing the first man that he will provide him with a suitable partner.

Perhaps "refudiate" will become acceptable one day. In 1920, Warren Harding said "America's present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy." Later that decade, philologist G.N. Clark noted that "if 'normalcy' is ever to become an accepted word it will presumably be because the late President Harding did not know any better." And normalcy (as well as normality) is now an accepted usage.

Googling "refudiate" now elicits at least half the hits as "repudiate," so "refudiate" is already on track to receive dictionary acceptance. How aggranoying is that?

Howard Richler is a Montreal author. His latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words .

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