Sarah Palin – the portmanteau queen?

The former Governor of Alaska and wannabe Republican president Sarah Palin caused a stir recently when she seemed to coin a new word – refudiate – in an interview on Fox News. The story concerned plans to build a mosque in New York, close to where the twin towers of the World Trade Centre once stood.

Refudiate is what is known as a blend or portmanteau word. In this case, a blend of refute (to prove wrong) and repudiate (to deny or reject). 

She used the word again in a tweet a few days later:

Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.

The US media had a lot of fun with this and Palin only poured oil on the fire when her original tweet was removed and then followed-up with another:

“Refudiate,” “misunderestimate,” “wee-wee’d up.” English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it! 

This implies she not only puts herself in the same league as George W Bush (misunderestimate) and Barack Obama (wee-wee’d up) but also Shakespeare.

We all know that George W Bush tended to mangle the English language but it comes as a surprise to hear President Obama coin the phrase ‘wee-wee’d up’, as he did last year:

I sort of understand what Obama was implying with this odd phrase. He was referring to people getting worked up and agitated. I don’t classify this as ‘mangling’ the language. This is genuinely inventive.

However, by comparing herself to Shakespeare, Palin merely gave the twitterverse a subject to really get its collective beak into. As the Huffington Post reported, the hashtag #ShakesPalin quickly became a trending topic. Even better – it led to some clever tweets such as these:

@normative – To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous liberals, or to quit halfterm, and by opposing, rake in speaking fees.

@djsmk – Neither a thinker nor a reader be / for thought oft loses both itself and friend /and reading dulls the edge of Fox TV.

But why are words like refudiate called portmanteaus? It refers to the old type of large travelling case or trunk which had two halves, hinged together. Lewis Carroll seems to have coined the phrase in Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There, with Humpty explaining the meaning of Jabberwocky to Alice:

“Well, slithy means ‘lithe and slimy’… You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Portmanteau words are not a new phenomenon. If they’re genuinely useful they’ll gain currency and will eventually enter into mainstream dictionaries. We’re all familiar with brunch (breakfast and lunch, coined in 1896), smog (smoke and fog, coined around 1900), and motel (motor and hotel, coined 1925).

Modern examples include blog, camcorder, chillax, fanzine, chugger, advertorial, Brangelina and even wikipedia. I recently came across the word ‘civilogue’ on a website to describe the type of comments they would accept – a blend of civil and dialogue.  

Palinspeak, as Palin’s eccentric use of the language is often called, will no doubt throw us more to muse on in the coming years. Am I going to get wee-wee’d up about it? No. It’s impossible to misunderestimate her and she’s already refudiated her use of the word refudiate.

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