By Ammon Shea
Every year, a group of people at OUP USA put our heads together and come up with a Word of the Year. This is an example of a word (or expression) that we feel has attracted a great deal of new interest in the year to date. It need not have been coined within the past twelve months (although it generally is a new word). It does not have to be a word that will stick around for a good length of time (it is very difficult to accurately predict which new words will have staying power). It does not even have to be a word that we plan on introducing into the dictionary (at least, not unless it seems fairly certain that it will stick around for a while).
An excellent example of all of this is the word refudiate, which was brought to prominence this year through its use by Sarah Palin, first in speech as a television commentator, and then in text as a twitter post. Palin was certainly not the first person to use this word – in fact, it has come up in enough other places over the past hundred and twenty years that it seems fair to ask why refudiate isn’t in the dictionary already.
This word dates back at least to June 14th 1891, when it appeared in a story in the Fort Worth Gazette, a Texas newspaper: “…it is the first declaration of how the party stands, and in great measure a refudiation of the charges of dickering…”
As Ben Zimmer pointed out, the word comes up again in 1925, this time in a newspaper headline in the Atlanta Constitution, on June 21st: “Scandal Taint Refudiated In Teapot Case by Court, Fall Says in Statement.”
The use of refudiate occurred a number of other times, both in print and in documented speech. The web site Politico describes how Senator Mike Dewine used it in 2006 (“Sherrod Brown needs to refudiate these comments”), and Mark Lieberman at Language Log has done a fine job of documenting its use in text prior to Palin’s use of it on twitter.
So if the word has been in use in some demonstrable fashion for well over a hundred years why hasn’t it already been included in the dictionary? The closest it has come to being enshrined in a reference work is its appearance in Victoria Fromkin’s 1973 work, Speech Errors as Linguistic Evidence, in which she points out that it is representative of a common type of error, similar to ebvious (evident + obvious) and frowl (frown + scowl). But every other time that refudiate has been used it was used in error, either intentionally or because the author simply (and somewhat reasonably) thought it was in fact a word.
Dictionaries typically do not include words that exist only because they are mistakes (unless the mistake becomes widespread enough that it enters the language). For instance, the word volumptuous has been in use in English since at least 1704, when it appeared in a poem in The Athenian Oracle, a London periodical (“Thro’ painted Scenes of gay volumptuous Joys, The Drudges post to Brimstome-Miseries”). Yet, even though it was used dozens of times throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, you will be hard-pressed to find it in a dictionary, for the simple reason that it has always been a misprint, an error in writing, or a fanciful use by some author. In the unlikely event that a politician or other person in an extremely public position was to suddenly use the word volumptuous in such a fashion that it was on everyone’s lips, then it would become a word that is looked at in a different light.
There is a possibility that this word will now be picked up by enough people and used in print that it will find itself in a dictionary of the future. The way that languages change and accrue new words and meanings may not be to everyone’s liking, but it is inexorable nonetheless, and English has been progressing this way for many hundreds of years.
It is entirely possible that refudiate will never find itself defined in an Oxford dictionary – it may be the linguistic mayfly that attracts our attention for but a short burst of time and then becomes just another fad we look back upon. But candidates for Word of the Year need not have the promise of permanence – they are contending to be the word of this past year, and not necessarily every year to come.
And even though it may be merely an ephemeral glitch, mistakes in language can sometimes be tenacious, and have the ability to burrow in and achieve permanence. After all, the word cocoa is nothing more than a corruption of the word cacao, yet few of us feel as though we are speaking incorrectly when we order one in a restaurant.
Granted, this mistaken use of cocoa for cacao happened a few hundred years ago, but who is to say that a hundred years from now our descendants won’t be proudly refudiating whatever it is that people refudiate in 2110?
Ammon Shea is the author of Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages and The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads. He has been reading almost nothing but dictionaries and assorted other reference works for more than a decade, and consequently is not overburdened with social invitations. He lives in New York City with his wife, son, and an unseemly quantity of old books.