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A Sarah Palin Retrospective

From Hockey Mom to refudiate, a look back at the linguistic gymnastics inspired (and invented) by Alaska's finest.

Love her, hate her, mock her, or model yourself after her, one fact about Sarah Palin can’t be denied: She's had a big impact on the English language. ??As her much-spoofed coining of "refudiate" shows, Palin continues to invent words, inspire new terms, and popularize existing ones. In her relatively short time in the public eye, she is associated or synonymous with “hockey mom,” “pit bull,” “lipstick on a pig,” “Troopergate,” “drill, baby, drill,” “death panel,” “go rogue,” and “doggone.” Though Palin is far from finished, it’s as good a time as any to look at her contributions to our collective vocabulary so far. ?

“Refudiate”—a blend of “refute” and “repudiate”—is a heckuva contender for Word of the Year 2010, given the mountains of attention it received in record time. Palin used the word once on Fox News, then repeated it on Twitter, in a tweet that was quickly edited. With the horse already out of the barn, Palin embraced the goof and put herself in Presidential and literary company: “’Refudiate,’ ‘misunderestimate,’ ‘wee-wee'd up.’ English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!”

As almost always seems to be the case, this “new word” is not entirely new. New York Times On Language columnist Ben Zimmer found a use going all the back to 1925, in an Atlanta Constitution headline: “Scandal Taint Refudiated in Teapot Case by Court, Fall Says in Statement." In 2006, Historical Dictionary of American Slang editor Jonathan Lighter pointed out Senator Mike DeWine using the word a couple of times, and there’s enough in common meaning-wise and sound-wise between “refute” and “repudiate” to assume lots of others have made the same mistake. Still, if and when “refudiate” appears in a dictionary, it will feature a picture of Palin and no other: She is to “refudiate” as Homer Simpson is to “d'oh.”

Perhaps because of her folksiness, if the collected Palinisms took on physical form, they would fill several barnyards: there are animals aplenty. Her nickname “Sarah Baracuda” preceded her step into the national spotlight, and when John McCain picked her as his running mate, a joke of her own choosing linked her with a pit bull. The oft-repeated punchline of that joke led the Palin camp to take offense when Barack Obama used the common expression “lipstick on a pig.” Palin professes a love for hunting wolves, caribou, and moose, and those critters are shorthand for her, like when a writer described her campaign as having “Moose-mentum.” When Palin resigned as Alaska governor, she said, “It would be apathetic to just hunker down and ‘go with the flow.’ Nah, only dead fish go with the flow.” With that zooful of words, it’s no wonder a writer mistakenly referred to “Sarah Palin and her elk.

Palin is known for her Alaskan accent, which sounds odd to many in the lower 48 and was discussed by Oxford English Dictionary North American Editor at Large Jesse Sheidlower here. Palin also does a lot of droppin' of Gs, and her use of terms like "you betcha," “shoot,” and “doggone” complete the persona, as seen in this Facebook note:

Shoot, I must have lived such a doggoned sheltered life as a normal, independent American up there in the Last Frontier, schooled with only public education and a lowly state university degree, because obviously I haven't learned enough to dismiss common sense.


Other Palin-associated language is all over the map. There was “death panel,” a term Palin used to scare people away from health-care reform, and the slogan “Drill, baby, drill!” which she continues to use in speeches and online writing. “Going Rogue”—the title of her autobiography—was appropriated from McCain advisors who used the term to criticize her 2008 campaign antics.

Palin’s name has also spawned several eponyms, including “Palinese” (for her unique way of talking), “Palinism” (for her collected sayings), and “Palinize” (to treat a politician in the same way Palin has been treated). In the wake of refudiate-gate, terms such as “malapalinism” and “ShakesPalin” have been coined, and many have suggested that “palindrome” be given a new meaning: “A 'Sarah Palindrome' is a sentence that reads forwards, whilst sounding backwards.”

I don’t think anyone has looked at the language and politics of Palin as carefully as Ali Davis, author of True Porn Clerk Stories and the humorist behind Tweetin4Palin. By email, Davis said she tries to capture the “monster, impossible-to-diagram sentences that flip and twist like a salmon on the line. (Sorry. Nearly slid into Palinese there.)” Davis does worry about making Palin appear too “cute,” so she tries to keep the spotlight on some of the ex-Guv’s worst ideas, such as “...making women pay for their own rape kits. She's an entertaining buffoon, but that doesn't mean we should give her a pass on the viciousness.”

But even Palin herself might appreciate tweets like “Romancey weekend w/Todd still goin' on. How many times can two people yell ‘Jeepers!’ ;)” and “Also sometimes I look at roses and think why so foldy? I don't trust 'em.” Got to celebrate it.

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