Last week American political commentator Sarah Palin annoyed lovers of the English language by calling on Muslims to “refudiate” the building of a new mosque in New York City. Clearly Palin accidentally combined “refute” and “repudiate” to create her neologism, but, after briefly changing the word to “refute” which didn’t make sense in context, Palin was soon suggesting that the first word was a deliberate stroke of creativity. “Shakespeare loved to coin new words too,” wrote the former governor and potential presidential candidate.
Now, if anything in this internet age went without saying, it would go without saying that Sarah Palin is no William Shakespeare. Let’s also put aside the many instances in which Shakespeare laments how people are easily misled by surface appearances, and how authority is often invested in the wrong people, and let’s consider instead the way in which Palin’s gaff was the sort of thing we do see in Shakespeare.
Shakespeare characters frequently mix up words, as, for instance, when Bottom (as Pyramus) intends to cry out that a lion has “devoured” his beloved, but cries out instead that the beast has “deflowered” her. Ouch? Oops? Oups?. The king of such malapropisms and other verbal carnage is Dogberry, the bumbling officer in Much Ado About Nothing. “Comparisons are odorous,” says Dogberry (he means “odious”) but Palin’s “refudiate” is exactly the sort of thing that would pass the watchman’s lips without a second thought. He says “dissembly” when he means “assembly,” “senseless,” when he means “sensible,” and, when the arrested villain Conrade calls him an “ass” to his face, he is outraged that the sexton has already left and cannot record the insult:
Dost thou not suspect my place? dost thou not
suspect my years? O that he were here to write me
down an ass! But, masters, remember that I am an
ass; though it be not written down, yet forget not
that I am an ass. No, thou villain, thou art full of
piety, as shall be proved upon thee by good witness.
I am a wise fellow, and, which is more, an officer,
and, which is more, a householder, and, which is
more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in
Messina, and one that knows the law, go to; and a
rich fellow enough, go to; and a fellow that hath
had losses, and one that hath two gowns and every
thing handsome about him. Bring him away. O that
I had been writ down an ass!
What Shakespeare realized is that stupidity tends to come out in the words that we use, and an idiot who speaks frequently will soon be recognized as an idiot, even if a well-meaning one. The Bard’s buffoons thus frequently confuse words that sound similar (“suspect” for “respect,” for example) and this is a mark of their buffoonery. If Will were around today to write a play about Sarah Palin, she would speak, no doubt, more or less as she actually does.
In the end, Shakespeare’s clowns remain charming because they are never given much real authority. More grave men remain in charge. Let’s hope that Sarah Palin remains similarly harmless.