“Refudiating” Word Games

What would have the late newsman and grammar guru Edwin Newman thought about airwaves and cyberspace filled with “refudiate” and “guido?”

By Jere Hester
|  Wednesday, Sep 15, 2010  |  Updated 10:45 PM PDT
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It’s hard to refudiate that we lost one of our great TV journalists and guardians of the language with the recent death of NBC’s Edwin Newman.

In fact, it’s impossible to refudiate – because “refudiate” isn’t a word.

We imagine that Newman, who displayed a strong sense of humor in his TV commentaries, writings and appearances on David Letterman’s old morning show and “Saturday Night Live,” might have gotten a rueful chuckle out of Sarah Palin’s tweeted mash-up of “refute” and “repudiate.”

Newman, whose death at age 91 was reported Wednesday, famously asked in “Strictly Speaking,” his 1974 bestseller on the state of language, “Will America be the death of English?”

Recent evidence doesn’t bode well for the mother tongue. The folks at Merriam-Webster this month named “refudiate” the Word of the Summer – and reported that the non-word spurred many searches on its online dictionary.

Meanwhile, The Global Language Monitor last week released its annual list of the popular “telewords” (which isn’t really a word itself). Placing No. 3 on the group’s “Top Words from Television” list for the 2009-2010 TV season was “guido.”

That anti-Italian slur became a catchword, thanks to the cast of “Jersey Shore” – a place, at least on MTV, where young people foolishly acting out stereotypes are celebrated and rewarded. (In other signs of the times, The Monitor’s top two entries were “BP Spillcam” and “dysfunctional.”)

Newman, the author of four books on language, wrote “Strictly Speaking” in part as a response to the constant, cloudy stream of doubletalk spouted by the Nixon White House during Watergate. Among the examples he cited was press secretary Ron Ziegler’s report that President Nixon’s attorney was seeking more time to “evaluate and make a judgment in terms of a response” to a subpoena.

Newman recognized that some politicians use language to obfuscate, and that a general coarsening of the language could lead to a coarsening of the culture. Those are things to keep in mind today, a sound-bitten age of tweets and texts where style and precision can fall victim to speed and attempts to mislead.

“Language is in decline,” Newman wrote 36 years ago. “Not only has eloquence departed but simple, direct speech as well, though pomposity and banality have not.”

In addition to politicians, Newman tweaked others in public life, including the colorful sportscaster Howard Cosell, who gave us the pseudo-word “numbstruck.” Somehow, though, “numbstruck” sums up how we feel these days as the language is mauled from Wasilla to the Jersey Shore.

But we’ll give Newman the final word on the importance of words: “Those for whom words have lost their value are likely to find that ideas have also lost their value.”
 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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