Non-word ‘refudiate’ gets most online searches

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Maybe the language lovers who looked up “refudiate” this summer wanted to refute or repudiate its existence as a real word.

Whatever the reason, their curiosity made Sarah Palin’s not-quite-a-word Merriam-Webster’s “Word of the Summer,” the one most often searched by users of the publisher’s online dictionary.

They didn’t find it, of course. The pseudo-word “refudiate” isn’t in the dictionary and is not expected to be added anytime soon.

That didn’t deter Palin when the former Alaska governor used it on a news show and in a Twitter message in July in place of refute or repudiate, which have similar meanings. Refute means to prove something wrong or deny its truth or accuracy. Repudiate means to refuse any connection with something or reject it as untrue or unjust.

Palin laughed off criticisms about “refudiate,” noting that Shakespeare also coined new words.

“I think people immediately knew what she was trying to say because the words ‘refute’ and ‘repudiate’ were also being looked up very, very frequently,” said John Morse, Merriam-Webster’s president and publisher.

“It’s an interesting blend, but no, ‘refudiate’ is not a real word,” he said.

But that could someday change. Many of today’s accepted words once were considered strange hybrids, too, including contraption (contrivance plus trap and invention) and splatter (splash and spatter).

Massachusetts-based Merriam-Webster started tracking trends on what news-driven words were looked up most frequently after Princess Diana’s death. That’s when its editors noticed a spike in online searches for certain words associated with that event, such as paparazzi (an aggressive photographer focusing on celebrities) and cortege (a funeral procession).

It’s now able to track all searches on its website, naming the top trend words of each year and an annual compilation of “new words” accepted into the dictionary, such as blog and staycation.

“Refudiate” is joined on this summer’s list of top words by “inception” and “despicable,” for which online searches jumped immediately as movies were released with those words in the titles. Some other often-searched words included “moratorium,” “austerity,” “opulent” and “doppelganger.”

“Frugal” also made the list, reflecting what Merriam-Webster editor at large Peter Sokolowski described as “a word and sentiment of the moment for the country.”

Some perennial puzzlers like “irony” and the bedeviling duo of “affect” and “effect” remained among Merriam-Webster’s most-often searched words, though, and its editors don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Palin wasn’t the first to blend two words with a similar meaning into one. Others have worked their way into the dictionary over time, such as “bold” and “audacious” blending to become “bodacious” or “guess” and “estimate” becoming “guesstimate.”

Jonathan Bobaljik, a linguistics professor at the University of Connecticut, said a term’s transition from slang to acceptance as a word isn’t a clear-cut process.

For instance, people with something in common — such as Palin supporters — might use a particular term to signal their affinity even if they know it’s not considered proper English.

“If enough people decide through popular consent that they’re going to use it, then it may eventually become a word,” Bobaljik said.

Indeed, Morse said lexicographers have told the Merriam-Webster editors they’re seeing more use of “refudiate,” though always by people who know the story behind it.

But it remains to be seen whether “refudiate” will become accepted as a “real word.”

“Will ‘refudiate’ get in the dictionary? Time will tell,” Morse said. “Lexicographers are not good fortune tellers, so even if I had a theory, that wouldn’t make it true.”

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