Sarah Palin's 'Lex Appeal': Oxford American Dictionary Chooses Refudiate as Word of the Year


​It's not in the dictionary, and it may never be. But there's a certain word on the tip of everyone's tongues this year, including the fine folks at Oxford University Press, the world's go-to authorities on the English language and publisher of the Oxford American Dictionary. 

Their Word of the Year for 2010 has just been announced, and, strictly speaking, it's not even a real word at all. 


As in, "peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate" -- the tweet heard 'round the world, in which former Republican vice presidential candidate and governor of Alaska Sarah Palin blended the words "refute" and "repudiate." 

Christine Lindberg, senior lexicographer for the Oxford University Press' U.S. dictionaries and thesauruses, was part of the jury of word-nerds who gave refudiate the word of the year title. 

"The word of the year is a word that we felt left some kind of an imprint on this year," she says. "It's like a time capsule in the form of a single word."

Throughout the year, Lindberg says, lexicographers and marketing staff within the press keep an eye out for words that have, as they say, "lex appeal." (Cue rimshot.) Then, in late October, the deciders all get together and have a round table discussion to choose the winning word. 

"When you look at the long list of words we consider, I don't think any one word has all the bells going off to start with," Lindberg says. "it's always just amazingly emerged through all of our discussions and give and take, and it just surfaces as the word that we all seem to agree on."

Other hot words this year that didn't quite make the cut: bankster (a combination of banker and gangster), gleek (as in, fans of the TV show Glee), vuvuzela (BZZZZZZ!), top kill (remember, that technique they tried to seal the leaking well that no one quite understood?) and nom nom (yes, the yummy sound), among others. 

And no, Lindberg says, it doesn't necessarily matter whether the word of the year is a "real word." It just has to have enough relevance to encapsulate the year that was. For example, "locavore," 2007's word of the year honoree, wasn't in any dictionary when it was chosen, but it did accurately describe the new obsession with locally sourced and prepared foods.

Though "locavore" did eventually make it into the dictionary, not all words of the year do. (For the record, "refudiate" is only the sixth such word; Oxford started the tradition in 2005.)

"It doesn't mean that, and it never have meant that," Lindberg says. "That's what makes it so fun! It's not a criterion or a consequence that it'll go into the dictionary."

And if it did go into the dictionary, there's no guarantee that it'll have any association with Palin, the beehive-haired pundit who made it famous.

"She didn't coin it! As a lexicographer, that's just something that made my skin crawl," Lindberg says of people attributing the blended word to Palin. "There's been evidence of this written and spoken in the past. If Joe Schmoe said it 15 years ago, it doesn't matter, but it matters now that Sarah Palin said it in 2010."

However, Lindberg understands the word's association with Alaska's most famous mama. She says she attaches no political agenda to the word.

"For me, this did not have one political anything to do with it. It doesn't smell political to me," Lindberg says. "I was immediately captivated by the fact that what Sarah Palin was saying in the messages that she posted on Twitter were completely eclipsed by one word. You could get a room full of Americans and hold up this word and 95 percent will say Sarah Palin, and maybe five people would remember what she was talking about [when she said it]. The word eclipsed anything political or anything she was talking about."


Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.