Friday, August 6, 2010

Refudiate [sic] pomposity

3rd entry in the Pomposity Series

Had it been me, I would have pleaded typo! and changed the f to a p. That may show that, like Palin's Obama, I lack "cojones"; Sarah Palin stood her ground, and urging an attitude toward the lexicon more libertarian than conservative, she reveled in the Shakespearean freedom to coin new words on Twitter, igniting a discussion more interesting than her political opinions. Did Sarah Palin err as a communicator in using the neologism refudiate? What does her usage and deportment regarding it categorically reveal about her character? These are the debate’s two central issues, which I propose to take seriously.

Refudiate is a blend, a portmanteau word, but which words does the formation blend? Most readers debating Palin’s coinage assumed refudiate blends repudiate and refute, but some readers thought repudiate and reject. Reject would be a nonstarter except Palin changed the message to reject within a few hours. Another uncertainty, mostly unnoticed, is that refuse is a strong competitor, better than refute (which is wrong). Shakespeare’s coinages didn’t burden the listener with uncertainty about the words he blended.

Since Palin relies on blending for meaning, the ambiguity is unfortunate, but more so, ironically, is the ambiguity’s ultimate harmlessness. Since the reader doesn’t need to know what the blend adds to the meaning of
repudiate, the blend creates nothing new: repudiate or reject does the job equally well. If Palin had intended a specific meaning, she didn’t convey it effectively: given opportunities, Palin never offered to define refudiate.

Ray Ward at The (New) Legal Writer says Palin escapes demerit because her neologism didn’t detract from the message’s clarity, but it’s hard to see how this could be, when even a typo tends to confuse. To the point, redundancy confuses; to construe the writing, the reader tries to find some justification for using two expressions. The reader’s reaction to redundancy is to distinguish the meaning of the redundant expressions. Different word, different sense, is not only a presumption of legal interpretation but an assumption generally involved in textual interpretation. A blend of two words whose intended meaning corresponds to one or each of the blended words is as redundant as consecutive synonyms.

This redundancy can illuminate aspects of Palin's character because it’s a redundancy of a special type, the type prevalent in legalese. Refudiate is a contraction of legalese's dreaded doublet or triplet. Had Palin chosen not to coin a word by blending synonymous constituents, she would have said:
Peaceful Muslims, pls repudiate, reject, and refute.
Synonyms strings—doublets, triplets, and longer—contribute to legalese’s pompous form. Common in official ceremonies, synonym strings are a form of bullying hyperbole, invoked ceremoniously by officialdoms. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Lawyers adopt legalese, including traditional synonym strings, as an outlet for pomposity, and refudiate is as pompous as any conventional triplet. (See “Legalese: Pomposity Ritualized.”) Plain writing disables legalese as defense against actual pomposity, resulting in its florid eruption, and neologisms and malapropisms with embedded synonym strings function for Sarah Palin as legalese functions for pompous lawyers. When criticism interrupted Palin’s preferred style for expressing pomposity, the result was the same as when an actually pompous lawyer tries plain writing. (See “Actual Pomposity.”) With the defense blocked, a more direct pompous form emerged, which observers recognized as pompous. Palin’s overbearing refusal to admit petty error and her presumptuous Shakespeare self-comparison were eruptions of actual pomposity.

No comments:

Post a Comment