Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sarah Palin and the disputed issue of dictionary choice

A cheap and dishonorable publicity stunt—this recognized even by a pro-Palin site—the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) proclaimed Sarah Palin's refudiate "Word of the Year." NOAD recognized, in a flaming display of incoherent thought, an eccentric utterance as the year’s foremost word, when it lacks the bare status of word, inasmuch as NOAD doesn’t plan on refudiate's inclusion; neither does the all-inclusive Oxford English Dictionary. NOAD’s definition, a general sense of reject, puts the supposedly performed "lexical analysis" in question: reject, itself a broad term, doesn’t self-evidently require supplementation with a form vaguely broader.

Some commentators seem to pity Palin, providing justification as though offering their services, pro bono, as her attorney. Merrill Perlman at the “Columbia Journalism Review” speculates that maybe we need refudiate, meaning to reject based on evidence or belief, no extant word filling the role. Unoccupied conceptual space doesn't rationally justify coining a word, as most of conceptual space is denominated, of necessity, by combinations of words. Only frequent use of a concept or its foundational nature can justify, to the extent the term applies, making a single word of it. Rejection based on evidence or belief rarely needs to be distinguished from plain, ordinary rejection, and the distinction doesn't help comprehend Palin's comment. Recall, she maintained that peaceful Muslims should refudiate the plans for the New York mosque. What she meant was simply reject; there was no implied influence either by evidence or belief. She was saying: Peaceful Muslims, don't go for this idea. If there's a question about it, let Sarah Palin herself be arbiter. When the error was publicized, she replaced the term with reject—not, incidentally, the demeanor of a confident, budding Shakespeare.

While wanting to discuss the perplexing reaction of other bloggers to the award, I’m not exercised by a word’s premature acceptance. There's, rather, something deeply wrong with the logic of the construction, and its significance shouldn’t be belittled, since the nature of the mistake could inform us about the intellect of a potential U.S. President; the unity of language and thought applies here as much as to the intellectual pinnacle. As Erin Brenner at “The Writing Resource” significantly observed, refudiate is supposed to be a portmanteau word, receiving its meaning by blending its constituents, supposedly, repudiate and refute. Neither rejection based on evidence and belief nor rejection follows the formula. The former, the meaning the “Columbia Journalism Review” proposes, is narrower than either of the supposedly blended constituents, whereas the definition urged by NOAD and Palin herself, reject, is still broader than the disjunction, more so when further broadened under NOAD's "lexical analysis."

To accept Palin-defined refudiate, you must either fail to understand that disjunction creates a broader class, an error common enough in practice but not in abstract contemplation; or you must erroneously understand repudiate, refute or both. Here it gets interesting, as we’ll see that NOAD demonstrates a perverse consistency.

Palin's mistake must concern refute; it's the term harboring a well-known confusion between refute and deny. NOAD’s usage note for refute says:

Refute and repudiate are sometimes confused. Refute means ‘prove (something or someone) to be false or erroneous’: attempts to refute Einstein's theory. Repudiate means ‘reject as baseless, or refuse to acknowledge’: scholars who repudiate the story of Noah's Ark. One could repudiate by silently turning one's back; to refute would require disproving by argument. In the second half of the 20th century, a more general sense of refute developed from the core one, meaning simply ‘deny’: I absolutely refute the charges made against me. Traditionalists object to the second use on the grounds that it is an unacceptable degradation of the language, but it is now widely accepted in standard English.

NOAD endorses Palin's confusion before the fact, the confusion that allows her to consider rejection the product of blending repudiation and refutation; refute defined as deny does blend with repudiate to create the concept reject. The Palin-style confusion about refudiate requires this confusion about refute, which NOAD alone endorses. So, NOAD was engaged in more than publicity seeking after all; it was shoring up its authority after the self-inflicted damage in defining refute.

If there is an accepted tendency to confuse refutation with denial, I haven't noticed. Even if such a trend existed, it wouldn't deserve promotion. The most descriptivist of linguists should accept that the confusion involves a loss of specificity, a degradation resulting from unwillingness or inability to discriminate the precise meaning of refute. The NOAD descriptivists take the doctrine to an extreme when they equate considerations of logic with the influence of tradition, while the anti-intellectual Palin eschews reason and thus the need for and even the meaning of literal refutation. Eschewing reason, thus the need to refute anything, fosters insensitivity to the specific meaning of refute.

NOAD alone advocates refute's ersatz usage because NOAD takes a position that justly can be called extremist on the prescriptivist – descriptivist linguistics spectrum; the online descriptivist, Geoffrey Pullum at the “Language Log,” for example, favors NOAD. NOAD's extremism in linguistics creates a natural affinity with Sarah Palin's in politics—not, to be sure, political agreement; only the similarity-based affection for an extremist anti-ideologue.

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