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The Burds and the Bees

Sarah Palin, the once and (perhaps) future candidate for higher political office, recently discovered the perils of neologizing, when she several times used the previously unknown word refudiate in a series of tweets about the potential building of a mosque near ground zero in Manhattan. The condemnation of her word choice was swift and brutal, and appears to have been significantly more vociferous than the condemnation of her political position. This raises the question of why we are so unforgiving of our politicians’ slips of the tongue (at least those politicians who are of ideologies that oppose our own). It often seems as though we will forgive all manner of licentious and peccable personal behavior (sordid affairs, embezzlement, public drunkenness, etc.), but woe betide he (or she) who dare employ a less familiar pronunciation of a common word.

Palin’s coinage, refudiate, cannot even rightly be called her own creation, for, as Mark Lieberman of Language Log has pointed out, it has been used a number of times by others, in both intentional and unintentional error. Yet no matter whether one agrees with her politics or her persona, it is odd to so excoriate her for what amounts to a minor and relatively amusing portmanteau (a portmanteau is, among other things, a new word created by blending elements of two existing words – in this case refute and repudiate). She may not have quite the same linguistic flair exhibited by Lewis Carroll when he coined bandersnatch and chortle, but it hardly seems worth all the sound and fury.

The former Alaskan governor is hardly alone in being excoriated for odd or inappropriate word choice – George W. Bush has probably endured more opprobrium on this score than any other public figure in memory. It was bad enough that he joined the ranks of presidents Carter, Clinton, and Eisenhower in pronouncing nuclear in a non-standard fashion – when he began using such words as misunderestimate half the United States population immediately declared that he must be an idiot.

Yet there had been little public outcry when John Conyers Jr., the Michigan congressman, used this same word, several years before Bush. True, Conyers was not quite as high-profile a figure as Bush was when he committed his malapropism, but it should at least have been noted that the word was not the creation of our 43rd President. In fact, the word existed long before Conyers used it – in an article titled American Diplomacy on the Bosphorus in an 1897 issue of the periodical New Outlook, Professor ADF Hamlin appears to use misunderestimate with no discernible trace of embarrassment or subsequent pillorying.

When faced with public calumny over such verbal blunders, is there anything that a politician can do to avoid the censure of an army of politically enraged grammarians? Dan Quayle was roundly mocked for his misspelling of the word potato (as potatoe) during a school spelling bee. Had Quayle done a little homework, he could have handled the blowback more effectively. If he’d consulted the OED, he could have justified his spelling thus: “There have been approximately 68 main variations in the spelling of potato in English over the past thousand years, and I – I took the one less spelled.”

He also could have pointed out that such a respected institution as the New York Times was occasionally using this admittedly uncommon spelling of the tuber for almost the entire 20th century, and had used it as recently as 1988, but a few years before his unfortunate turn at the spelling bee (“…a bland carrot-and-potatoe puree.”). Considering that writers for the New York Times are still poking fun at Quayle for this, more than twenty years later, it is perhaps unlikely that this would have solved his problem.

The urge to ridicule our politicians based on their linguistic peccadilloes is not rooted in a calm and reasoned approach to language – it is irrational and often petty behavior, and so I would recommend to all future blunderers of speech that they respond in kind and take a page from the playbook of George Hearst (father of the press baron), in an episode in 1882, when he unsuccessfully ran for the governorship of California. As described in Ben Procter’s book, William Randolph Hearst, the Early Years, 1863-1910, the elder Hearst responded to criticism of his spelling and education thusly:

“My opponents say that I haven’t the book learning they possess. They say I can’t spell. They say I spell bird, b-u-r-d. If b-u-r-d doesn’t spell bird, what in hell does it spell?”

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