Should You Use “Refudiate”?

The New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) announced its 2010 Word of the Year (WOTY) this week, going with the politcally charged refudiate. Refudiate is a blend of refute, to prove a statement or argument as false, and repudiate, to deny an accusation as true. NOAD says its WOTY suggests “a general sense of reject.” NOAD defends its choice as not being the first blended word or slip of the tongue to become a new word. It also offers an outline of refudiate’s use, noting that it was first used in print in the Fort Worth Gazette in 1891: “It is the first declaration of how the party stands, and in great measure a refudiation of the charges of dickering.” Sarah Palin is only the latest, if most vocal, person to use it.

But should you use refudiate?

First we must ask: what is a word? Is it an utterance acceptance by a dictionary, your English teacher, or your mother? Is it a combination of sounds that someone has declared it a word? The American Heritage Dictionary defines word as:

a sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing, that symbolizes and communicates a meaning and may consist of a single morpheme or of a combination of morphemes.

Key to a word being a word, then, is that it communicates meaning. To successfully communicate a meaning, a word must have the same definition for both the writer and the reader.

This is where it gets tricky, folks.

NOAD states refudiate is a portmanteau word, that is, it combines the meanings of the words that make it up. If refudiate is a portmanteau word, it should mean to both reject a statement and prove that statement wrong. Yet according to NOAD:

From a strictly lexical interpretation of the different contexts in which 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.”

So it’s not a portmanteau word? It suggests a meaning of reject? That NOAD is not stating specifically what the word means indicates that the word does not yet have a standard, agreed upon meaning.

This troubles me.

To communicate, the writer must have a shared definition of a word with the reader. If a word’s meaning is still so fluid, sharing a definition could be difficult. Perhaps your context can make clear that by refudiate you mean simply reject:

In a press conference, CEO Adam Stash refudiated all claims that he was stealing from his company. He told reporters, “I have never stolen from ABC Co. I love it too much to do such harm.”

Or that you mean disprove and reject:

In a press conference, CEO Adam Stash refudiated all claims that he was stealing from his company. He told reporters, “I have never stolen from ABC Co,, and here are the records to prove it.”

But unless you are willing to make it clear in your context exactly what you mean by refudiate, you are going to have trouble communicating with your audience. Another caution: refudiate is the buzzword of the moment and it is inextricably linked to Palin. If that doesn’t work for you, you might want to choose another word instead.

Lexicographer Erin McKean encourages the use of neologisms. “If it works like a word, just use it.” One way a word works is communicating a shared meaning. If you’re not communicating a shared meaning with a particular word, your best bet is to change it.

About Erin Brenner

With a BA and an MA in English, Erin has been an editing professional for 15 years, working on a variety of media, especially online. Her niche is business/marketing and online. In addition, she has experience teaching editing to non-editors and coaching writers. In 2008, Erin was bitten by the social media bug...hard. Follow her on Twitter, @ebrenner, and get a daily vocabulary word, a link to the article of the day, and much more. You can also find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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