Words of the year not what they used to be

Slim pickings for this year's 'word' prompt the Monitor's language columnist to suggest some rules for dealing with coinages.

Whatever happened to the word of the year? Or perhaps I should say, "words of the year." More and more organizations seem to be trying to summarize the year in a single mot juste, but this year's crop doesn't seem all that interesting. The American Dialect Society holds out till January every year to announce its pick. Global Language Monitor has come out with "spillcam," a relic of this year's Gulf oil spill. That, mercifully, seems like old news. Oxford has come up with "Big Society," a reference to the slogan of Prime Minister David Cameron, but not all that sparkly.

Last year, The New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) seemed to be channeling the zeitgeist perfectly with its choice of unfriend. You don't have to like it to recognize that it's a phenomenon.

This year NOAD has settled on refudiate. It came from a much retweeted tweet from Sarah Palin: She asked Muslims to "pls refudiate" the Islamic community center planned for a site near ground zero in New York.

Said NOAD editors, "From a strictly lexical interpretation of the different contexts in which Sarah Palin has used 'refudiate,' we have concluded that neither 'refute' nor 'repudiate' seems consistently precise, and that 'refudiate' more or less stands on its own, suggesting a general sense of reject."

OK, it's out there; what are we going to do with it? The "Tip of the Week" column from the newsletter Copyediting provocatively asked, "Should you refudiate neologisms?"

Neologism comes from Greek words meaning "new" and "word," and means, guess what, "new word," or coinage. It turns out Ms. Palin's word isn't all that "neo," however. It first appeared in print in the Fort Worth Gazette in 1891, evidently in a political report of some kind: "It is the first declaration of how the party stands, and in great measure a refudiation of the charges of dickering."

Maybe there's a smart-phone app that includes a database of all 19th-century Texas newspapers, but I somehow doubt that Palin consulted such a thing before she tweeted her notable tweet.

In any case, the Tip column has some good ideas for those wondering whether to "allow" coinages like this in copy they're editing, or in their own writing.

Make sure the term really means what the writer thinks it means, for a start. New terms often haven't solidified in meaning, and if there's no dictionary entry to check, there's no objective standard for usage. In the age of the Web, it's not hard to see how a word is generally being used. But sometimes there are nuances you may miss in a quick check of just a couple of examples – especially if you search the larger Web, rather than Google News, where you'll find more professionally edited copy.

Other points: Make sure the new term fits the style and tone of the text. Make sure the audience will get your meaning, and beyond that, will find the new term acceptable. Sometimes using a new buzzword is like showing up for a power lunch in the wrong kind of shoes; other times use of the right lingo signals that you're in the know.

There's something satisfying about a coinage that's just right, that meets a clear need in the language and builds on words already there. We'll have to see whether refudiate catches on. And for now, I'm waiting for January, to see what word the American Dialect Society picks.

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