Sarah Palin Dishes Out a Uniquely American Word Salad

Sarah Palin, an Idaho Celebrity

Sarah Palin and potatoes both emanate from Idaho. Yes, it is true! While Sarah is identified with Alaska; she was born in a small northern Idaho town, Sandpoint, population 7,000 people.  Shortly after her birth, the Palin family moved to Alaska, her main home stomping grounds. However, Ms. Palin did return briefly to Idaho for college when she attended Northern Idaho Community College and eventually graduated from the University of Idaho with a communication degree. She is ranked as the most famous University of Idaho Alumnus on Ranker.Com right above former U.S. Senator Larry Craig.  For those of you who don’t follow Idaho politics, Craig is best known across America for defending a potential homosexual pickup in a men’s restroom by “Having a Wide Stance!”  As you can see from this very short list, the University of Idaho is desperate for celebrities.

I am fascinated by Ms. Palin.  As the 2008 Republican Party nominee for Vice President, alongside Arizona Senator John McCain, Sarah’s selection to the Republican ticket created a series of firsts including first Alaskan and first woman to be on a Republican national ticket.  She is also the first former beauty queen to be on a national ticket, having placed first in Miss Wasilla Pageant playing the flute for talent and subsequently coming in third in the Miss Alaska Pageant.  We know from the 2008 Presidential campaign, Ms. Palin is a lightning rod for controversy. Even when competing in beauty pageants, hullabaloo is not far from Sarah’s side. She reportedly won  the Miss Congeniality award in the Miss Wasilla contest, but this is disputed by another contestant and former classmate of Palin’s.    Apparently,  the oxymoron, “the contested Miss Congeniality”  is not surprising when Ms. Palin is in the mix.

As a Palin watcher, I have learned over the years that Sarah has many versions of reality, none of them easy to dispute because most of us have such a hard time understanding what she is trying to say. Sarah’s star rose again last week  (January 19, 2016) when she endorsed Donald Trump for President on the campaign trail.

January 2016, Palin and Trump on campaign trail, 2016

If you watch the endorsement, you’ll see Sarah sporting a dazzling Dolly Partonesque, spiky sequin sweater, shouting out a strange rambling of disconnected thoughts on how to make America great again.  The New York Daily News described her word salad, almost unintelligible rant,  as “gaffe prone”.

Sarah has become a national icon of the Tea Party largely because of her tendency to transform complex public policy into  a string of  zeitgeist slogans with pithy punch lines such as, “Mr. President, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a nuke is a good guy with a nuke.” (March 8, 2014).  This trait has made her easy fodder for comedians.  Some of the best political humor, I have ever watched was Tina Fey’s comedic sketches of Sarah on Saturday Night Live (SNL) during the 2008 presidential campaign.  Sarah once again provided the inspiration for a Tina Fey reprisal of the Trump endorsement  on SNL, January 23, 2106.  The New York Times described the skit as “brilliant parody!”  Dressed in the same black and silver spiked sweater as Palin, Fey ended  her sketch with the zinger,  Sarah had endorsed Trump as a quid pro quo for a Trump cabinet appointment, “I belong in a cabinet! Because I’m full of spice and got a great rack.”

Saturday Night Live, Fey and Hammond as Palin and Trump, 2016


While many view Palin’s wacky speech patterns consisting of slogans, rhymes and new words as a sign of ignorance or inability to use the English language correctly, I believe history may prove she is one of the great malapropoists of our time. A malapropism is the misuse of a word through the confusion with another word which sounds similar, sometimes resulting in ridiculous speak.  An  everyday example of malapropism  is “the numbers don’t jive” when the correct wording is the” numbers don’t jibe”  In the first “ jive” means lively dancing and so the statement would only be correct if we were watching Sesame Street and colorful, performing numbers were being  used to teach children to count.  In the second example, “jibe” means the numbers are not in agreement and if you are an accounting major and have this problem, you may be in danger of flunking the test.

The most brilliant example of Sarah’s use of malapropisms is the word “refudiate”.   Until Sarah Palin arrived on the scene, this word did not exist (Even today, my spell checker thinks it is still not a word). The word is a mixture of “refute” and “repudiate”.  When one refutes something, they prove something is in error or false.  When one repudiates something, they deny any connection to something such as a family member.  Sarah started using the word “refudiate” in 2010 in a TV interview, challenging President Obama to “refudiate” the NAACP’s charge that the Tea Party had racist elements (NPR, August 6, 2010). She also tweeted the word, asking peaceful Muslims to “refudiate” violent Muslim acts. The word became the salvo of conservatives who argued that refudiate shows a commitment to refute the liberal agenda while repudiating (defeating) liberals at the polls.  In the midst of a raging pundits controversy about whether this was an example of Sarah’s failure to grasp the English language or her ability to be clever like a fox, Sarah complimented herself by tweeting; “English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!” In November 2010, the New Oxford American Dictionary  (NOAD) agreed with her by listing “refudiate” as the 2010 new word of the year.   The NOAD editors wrote in a release: “From a strictly lexical interpretation of the different contexts in which Palin has used ‘refudiate,’ we have concluded that neither ‘refute’ nor ‘repudiate’ seems consistently precise, and that ‘refudiate’ more or less stands on its own, suggesting a general sense of ‘reject.’”

During the Trump endorsement, Sarah once again treated us to a variety of malapropisms. She referred to members of Emily’s List, the pro-choice, Democratic women political action committee, as a “cackle of rads”. Cackle replacing either gaggle or cabal, I’m not sure which and rads replacing radical. The image of cackling, radical women similar to a group of old crones is not a pleasant one. In three words, Sarah managed to slap progressive women down with a spiteful imagine and appear as if she wasn’t even aware of her rhetoric.

My favorite word from Sarah’s Trump endorsement was “squirmish”. This word is an adaptation of “squirm” to wiggle because of discomfort and “skirmish” to brief fight sometimes part of a larger battle.    But I was left perplexed and disturbed that Ms. Palin, a leader on the national stage, would described the Syrian conflict, resulting in more than 330,000 causalities and uprooting more than four million people as a squirmish. To quote Ms. Palin, “,And you quit footin’ the bill for these, nations who are oil-rich, we’re paying for, some of their squirmishes, that have been goin’ on, for centuries. Where they’re fightin’ each other and yellin’ Allah Akbar, callin’ jihad on each other’s heads forever and ever. Like I said before, let ‘em duke it out, and let Allah sort it out!

I think a better use of the term squirmish is as a descriptive noun for the 2016 Republican Presidential Race. All of the candidates are making me squirm (uncomfortable and wanting to break free) with their personal attacks on each other and the media, trivializing of complex issues and hate messages directed at Muslims and refugees. So far the primary season can be viewed as a series of skirmishes (small contests) leading up to the great battle, the Republican National Convention. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to have “squirmish” used to describe this year’s Presidential race in future U.S. Government text books. But right now I would like to refudiate all of the Republican Presidential candidates.

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