I subscribe to Merriam-Webster’s online unabridged dictionary, which contains the definition and spelling of more than a million words and also gives me access to a myriad of online resources that are helpful to a writer, including the Collegiate Dictionary, Collegiate Encyclopedia, Thesaurus, Atlas, medical dictionary, style guide, French-English dictionary and Spanish-English dictionary. It’s a great bargain at under $30 a year and I recommend it to any student, teacher, communications professional or frequent reader.
Once a quarter, Merriam-Webster sends me an online newsletter, the highlight of which is the list of the 20 words that people looked up the most over the past three months. Some words, such as “ubiquitous,” “conundrum,” “integrity” and “love” always make the list. So do “affect” and “effect,” which makes a lot of sense since these two words are so similar in spelling and meaning.
Then there are the words that become popular look-ups because of blips in mass culture. For example, this quarter’s list, which I received a few days ago, includes “inception” and “despicable,” both in titles of movies this past summer, Inception and Despicable Me.
But the most looked-up word over the past quarter isn’t even a word, it’s a slip of the tongue made by Sarah Palin in early July: refudiate. Palin spouts so much nonsense, makes so many mistakes in word usage and misstates so many facts that I didn’t follow the controversy at the time she used this neologism (for which the good dictionary gives two definitions: 1) “a new word, usage, or expression”; 2) “a usually compound word coined by a psychotic and meaningless to the hearer.”)
After much online mocking, Palin compared her use of the word favorably to Shakespeare’s invention of words. While Shakespeare did invent or bring many words into written use for the first time, the comparison is absurd: The job of the creative writer includes stretching the boundaries of language and expression, whereas the job of the politician and civic leader is to articulate precisely his or her positions. The essence of every good speech, be it the Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther’s King’s “I have a dream…” is clarity. I’m not saying that politicians can’t make up words, but when they do, they should immediately define the new word for the audience and general public. A good speech often creates new phrases, such as “the New Deal,” “The Great Society” and “The Contract with America.” Palin merely dug herself into a deeper hole of ridicule with her defense of combining “refute” and “repudiate,” which have very different meanings, to form a nonsense word.
But lambasting Palin’s incoherence and her foolish excuses for it is akin to shooting large fish in a very narrow barrel. I want instead to take a look at what the silly controversy about refudiate says about the current state of public discourse.
On the one hand, the fact that so many people looked up the word in the dictionary is a sign that people do pay attention, which is a good thing.
But consider this fact: On the first day after Merriam-Webster’s release of its online newsletter, my search on Google News found 551 articles or blog entries about refudiate achieving the number one position on the Merriam-Webster list.
I’ve used Google News results in the past to suggest how much the mainstream news media is covering a story, especially one that no one has to cover. Let’s compare the coverage of the Merriam-Webster newsletter to some feature stories over the past few months that I think got short shrift on the news media:
- University of Washington study shows, “opposition and frustration with government is going hand in hand with a frustration and opposition to racial and ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians” – 40 stories.
- Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco research proves that immigrants increase both wages and productivity of all workers – 18.
- Study by a Stanford professor shows that 74% of all Americans believe the earth is getting warmer – 37.
An analysis of Palin’s position on any number of issues would, alas, certainly be newsworthy, but how could the aftermath of yet another slip of Palin’s tongue be more important than these significant studies? It’s absolutely incredible, except for two factors:
- All of the studies I’m mentioning go against current trends in media coverage, i.e., the news media is giving the Tea Party a pass on the discriminatory essence of many of its followers; the news media is complicit in the great and unfortunate wave of anti-immigration feeling rolling over the country; the news media has kept alive the false and anti-scientific idea that global warming may not be occurring.
- The news media has demonstrated time and again that they want to reduce political campaigns to personality battles, candidate miscues and scandals.
Let’s take a look now at how many hits were on Google News for some real news stories on September 11, that is, stories that the news media must cover (and keep in mind that I’m taking a moment in time and when you look up these stories, you may see more, or even fewer):
- The natural gas explosion in San Bruno, California raises safety issues – 3,832 stories.
- Iran cancels release of U.S. hiker – 2,058.
- Tropical storm Igor nears hurricane strength – 1,295.
- FAA proposes more rest for pilots – 779.
We would expect that these real news stories would achieve greater penetration than a feature story. But compare this coverage to the announcement that Pastor Terry Jones is canceling his scheduled burning of copies of the Koran – 13,093 stories!!
I believe that the news media should never have covered the planned hate-mongering antics of an obscure pastor in a small college town in the first place. Once the news media made this non-story into the kind of sideshow that prevents us from considering real issues, coverage snowballed as religious and political leaders felt the need to take a stand against the planned protest. What happened is that the news media created a news snowball that turned into an avalanche of coverage that buried alive more important stories and issues.
The sad thing, of course, is that be it coverage of the ramblings of the incoherent Palin or the pronouncements of an intolerant ignoramus like Pastor Jones, this trivialization of news happens all the time.