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Peaceful muslims, pls refudiate. —sarah Palin on Twitter, July 18, 2010
With her words above, the former Republican vice presidential nominee was trying to urge people to reject a proposed Muslim center two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City. She immediately drew some flak for partially misidentifying the issue and maligning Muslims. So she toned down the wording in a subsequent tweet.
But her worst crime, judging from press reaction, was to make up the term refudiate. Grammarians were shocked. Journalists exploded. "There's no such word," they shouted in print and on Twitter as they relished one more chance to show that the feisty former Alaska governor was out of touch with reality.
The flames temporarily singed Palin into hastily substituting the word refute. When that didn't work, she fired back, adding an old gem from former president George W. Bush and some slang for getting too excited:
"Refudiate, misunderestimate, wee-weed up. English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin words too. Got to celebrate it!"
Write on, sarah! it's time to celebrate the new lingo that's sweeping around the world. All nitpickers should put their picks away. Let's face it, formal English is dying. A new, much less formal language is taking over this country and the world. And it's time to welcome it with open arms. In fact, there's no way to stop it.
IN PRAISE OF PALIN
Asher smith, a reporter for the Huffington Post, was notable in his objection to the firing squad lined up against the former Alaska governor. "Hand it to Palin," he wrote. "Refudiate is catchy and sounds right to the ear." Smith had a point. Palin's word could be considered more logical than many words already accepted in the famously illogical English language.
What was so wrong about combining refute and repudiate? Palin had used the word a few days earlier on The Sean Hannity Show without arousing any reaction. Palin obviously assumed that was enough approval to make it an OK word in today's environment. She knew that the ultraconservative host would not allow a verbal abortion on his program.
And what about Palin's abbreviation for please? This slimmed-down version of the word was propelled by the advent of texting and has become so universally understood and accepted, especially on Facebook and Twitter, that none of her detractors even mentioned it. Language establishment leaders may not have been plsd, but they are no longer able to control the spelling of many wds, especially now that so many people are alluva twitter about language.
THE QUIRKS OF ENGLISH
for centuries, Americans have been trying to deal with the mysteries of the language their forebears heedlessly brought with them from England in the seventeenth century. No other language has ever been stitched together by so many sight-impaired, hearing-impaired, tongue-impaired babblers into such a crazy quilt of rules and traditions.
Numerous books, including many recent ones, have been written to show people how to comply with the increasingly outmoded requirements. Some sell well perhaps because of the large amount of grammar guilt still harbored by many people. But the only thing that has improved is the failure rate of national language tests.
What makes English so fascinating is not the impossible challenge of finding perfection so much as its large number of irregularities, defects, peculiarities, and just plain illogical requirements, not to mention the difficulties of pronouncing and spelling it.
People from all parts of society have tried to use their native language without error. But nobody has yet been able to do so, no matter how hard he or she or they have tried. There will always be some defect or quirk that prevents perfection. Take mark Twain's words for it. When he considered the idea of English without error, he grunted, "The thing just can't be done."
It should not be surprising that a new, less formal, easier-to-use version of English is rapidly taking shape with a character of its own. Among the names suggested for it, the best appears to be Amglish, since it is clearly an American version of English.
When Sarah popped up with refudiate, she—like countless lesser-knowns—was simply doing her bit to help the natural language process work its way. It was her explosive genius for mixing and matching words that captivated the public. Perhaps her most masterful coinage came on march 29, 2011, in the early phase of U.S. Involvement in the Libyan uprising, when she was asked to assess the nation's role by Greta Van Susteren on fox TV: "I too am not knowing. Do we use the term intervention, do we use war, do we use squirmish?"
No word, accidental or not, could better describe the American role after strongman muammar Qaddafi refused to quit and the United States began efforts to unseat him without widening the conflict into a full-fledged war. Weren't many Americans squirming to find the right word to describe the situation?
COMMON SPEECH PATTERNS
It's not only Palin's uncanny ability to burst forth with the perfect new word but her concomitant ability to level with the average person by speaking in a natural, informal manner. She was in clover with Van Susteren, who has some similar language patterns.
For example, on the same show six days earlier, Van Susteren had asked her, "What do—what, in your opinion, is, in general, not necessarily just here, but the role of the military? Is—I mean, what—what is the role of the military?"
To which Palin replied: "Well, the UN obviously wants this—the role to be of our military just a humanitarian effort per the UN resolution that America has been a part of, and that's why we are engaged in enacting the no-fly zone. However, again, with Qaddafi having the blood of innocent Americans on his hands—and we have an opportunity to say, OK, finally we have—you're going to be held accountable. You're going to be gone."
Disjointed syntax like this, of course, is not unusual for ordinary conversations. But we used to expect leading figures and media types to use less fractured language on the public record. No longer. John McWhorter, a language specialist at the New Republic, saw a major change occurring when he wrote that "having trouble rubbing a noun and a verb together is not considered a mark against one as a figure of political authority."
It should be clear to everyone by now: American English is rapidly changing into something much less formal when national leaders are catching the wave. It is pure Amglish. And it's bipartisan. All prominent politicians have misused their native language in one way or another. Vice President Biden has become famous for his "bloopers," one of which was his claim during the 2008 campaign that "the number one job facing the middle class [is] ... a three-letter word: J-O-B-S." President Obama is also not immune to language slipups, as this chapter will make clear.
WHO SPEAKS AMGLISH?
All Americans speak Amglish whenever they depart—knowingly or unknowingly—from the rules of formal English or use words that are not in a standard dictionary. One departure doesn't make a new language, but a pattern of them is a good start. Even the best-educated people use Amglish to an increasing degree, often without realizing it.
There is no doubt that Standard English remains the prevailing language of business, government, and the media in the United States. But it is also clear from the many variations of it that the language is being transformed into something quite different from what it was only half a century or so ago.
Also changing in a big way is the ancient concept of language discipline. What matters now is no longer whether people speak or write correctly; it's whether they make sense and are understood, regardless of the rules or standards that are followed or not followed. As George Orwell observed, "Correct grammar and syntax [are] of no importance as long as one makes one's meaning clear." You can almost hear the amen chorus.
The groundswell toward less formal language is also being driven by the growing mix of the world's tongues in the united states and elsewhere. The crescendo of competing dialects and accents serves to further break down old barriers and install new, less confining ones. The numbers alone are impressive.
According to reliable British sources, about 2 billion people speak some form of English, including about 500 million who grew up in an English-speaking household. The other 1.5 billion speak it as a second, third, or fourth language. Almost all these people speak an Amglish version of English.
If you take British author Robert McCrum's definition of "English speaking," the total number shoots up to 4 billion, more than half the earth's population of 7 billion, give or take a few hundred million. McCrum includes anyone having "knowledge of or acquaintance with some kind of English."
With that definition, even a sheepherder in Nepal might know what to do if he and his flock came to a fork in the road with a signing saying stop. But just as a few swallows don't make a summer, a few words don't make a person conversant in a language.
The British Council, a government-supported nonprofit with a mission to promote the language, estimates that by 2020, "nearly a third of the world's population will all [sic] be trying to learn English at the same time." That total might include the wordy writer of the prediction.
THE NEED FOR LEADERSHIP
As the third millennium neared, confusion over language standards was reaching a peak in the united states. English teachers appeared unable to explain why verbal SAT scores were dropping so steadily. And many students must have wondered why they were penalized for saying and writing things that were making equally young musicians and comedians filthy rich.
Older people who were not swept up by the new lingo probably wondered whether to ignore what they had learned in school or keep trying to conform while so many around them were not. And many young adults must have pondered when to follow the rules and when to run with the crowd. Everyone wanted to know how to act cool in the changing language environment.
Among those raising questions publicly was President George W. Bush when he asked, "Is our children learning?"
Educators were shifting millions of students into remedial English courses without knowing how best to solve the plague of early dropouts from school. Many parents were also getting worried about whether their children's language was good enough for the job market.
The time seemed ripe for some kind of national language leadership. The basic question was whether formal American English was being—or should be—replaced and whether influential Americans should embrace the winds of change. A related question was who was going to step forward to help find the answers?
By the late 1980s, President George h. W. Bush had shown some awareness of the overall challenge when he offered up an occasional malapropism or grammatical lapse. At a formal dinner for the Pakistani prime minister on June 6, 1989, he admitted, "Fluency in English is something that I'm often not accused of."
But the next president, Bill Clinton, had too much love for formal English to lead a popular rebellion against it. His only public lapse came during a brief moment when he was questioned about the Monica Lewinsky matter, and he found it necessary to question the meaning of the word is. for this, he was sometimes called a cunning linguist.
JOY IN MUDDLEVILLE
The five-to-four supreme Court decision in the contested election of George W. Bush as president in 2000—while ballots were still being counted in Florida—brought unbounded joy to the ranks of language rebels. Bush had clearly shown an intriguing originality with words during the campaign. He wasted no time connecting with the public mood when he blurted out, "They misunderestimated me," after his election.
With those three words, George W. clearly signaled that he was primed for a leadership role in the language wars. Although he must have been exposed to some formal English at Andover and Yale, he obviously was more interested in things he didn't need lessons in, such as baseball and bar hopping. from watching his father, he also had become fully aware that a generous amount of broken English could bring handsome political rewards to men of privilege by leveling them linguistically with the hoi polloi.
However, his feisty mom presented a slight problem. Eleven years earlier, she had noticed a failure of many American families—possibly including her own—to be able to read and write English. So she formed the Barbara bush foundation for family Literacy, no doubt to share the lessons that some in her own family had failed to learn at home with people who might better appreciate them.
In the end, she did not stand in George's way, and he was off and running. It was not until three years into his presidential term that he finally realized what his mom was so concerned about. He said, "The literary level of our children are appalling." He were not joking.
bush's knack for going with the flow of language was fortuitous for all Americans as well as for Amglish. Only three months after his inauguration, he saw the need to finally straighten out the long-standing public confusion over when to use the words lay and lie, just one of the language's many conundrums. Language authorities had tried for centuries to clear it up, but none had succeeded.
"We understand," he said, "where the power of this country lay. It lays in the hearts and souls of Americans. It must lay in our pocketbooks. It lays in the willingness for people to work hard. But as importantly, it lay in the fact that we've got citizens from all walks of life...."
The answer was finally clear: Lay is the choice, hands down, in all circumstances. End of problem. But a broader message was implied: that it was okay to wing it when faced with such quandaries in English, including when to use who or whom, will or shall, that or which, further or farther, et cetera. There has always been a leadership vacuum for such quandaries. Language authorities have never been able to explain them adequately.
When history finally assesses George W's deeds, lax lingo may be his greatest legacy.
NEOLOGISMS ARE US
At the same time, the country was becoming entranced with the idea of making up words and phrases as well as playing loose with grammar and syntax. It didn't matter whether the increasing laxness was accidental or purposeful. Language was becoming something to enjoy and be stylish with. Even the media, which have long prided itself by keeping up to the old rules, have joined the new game with vigor.
One of the more logical inventions is idolspize, a term promoted by the Washington Post—in a separate article—to denote simultaneously idolizing and despising a celebrity. Just as one word can lead to another, so can one neologism lead to another.
A year later, the paper went into a full-page orgasm over the latest word for an important female body part, vajayjay. The term apparently got its start on ABC's Grey's Anatomy and then got massaged by Oprah and enough other TV personalities to gain entrance into Merriam-Webster's Open Dictionary. If the originating show had used the anatomical term instead, nobody would have noticed.
The Post chose to violate a famous language rule and use a noun instead of a verb to describe the way in which Hollywood's Joan Collins went "swanning through the lobby of the Ritz Carlton ... with just the right accessories."
Broadcasters can also play the game. NPR ran a contest to find the best neologism for an aborted sneeze. The witty winner was sniff-hanger.
Excerpted from Amglish in, Like, Ten Easy Lessons by Arthur E. Rowse Copyright © 2011 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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