The meanings of “refute”

Do you get annoyed by the modern use of the word “refute”? Lots of people use it to mean “deny” or “reject” instead of “disprove” – as in “I refute these allegations”, which hapless miscreants mumble on the news every day as their reputations collapse.

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“You’re just contradicting me!” “No I’m not.”

It makes me a bit twitchy when I hear it. But it’s not that modern. This year is the centenary of the first recorded complaint about “refute”.

In 1916, Robert Palfrey Utter published Every-Day Words and Their Uses. It included this:

To refute a statement, opinion, accusation, imputation, or charge, is not merely to call it in question, or deny it without proof, but to disprove it, overthrow it by argument, show it to be false.

The usage Utter condemned had been becoming more popular by the turn of the 20th century. The earliest example recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1886:

Mind, i ain’t a snob; I utterly refute that idear. I don’t judge bi the koat he wares, or the joolery, or nothing of that kind

This is a satire of ill-educated language, so maybe “refute” was a deliberate mistake. But even so, that would suggest it was a known misuse.

In any case there are earlier examples. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw fears he may have spotted one from 1815, another century before Utter:

But now I read in Jane Austen’s Emma about the heroine’s apparent pique at the existence of a rival beauty: “Mr Knightley had once told her it was because she saw in her the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself, and though the accusation had been eagerly refuted at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her.”

Oh no. Could it be that Austen is a non-refutist? I prefer to think she is deliberately reflecting Emma’s thought processes: in her nervous vexation, Emma in her own mind fudges the meaning of “refute”.

Bradshaw’s thinking sounds wishful.

I found an irrefutable example, after rummaging through a few classics, from Anthony Trollope’s The Warden in 1855:

‘But you do love him,’ said Mary, who had followed her friend to the window, and now spoke with her arms close wound round the other’s waist. ‘You do love him with all your heart—you know you do; I defy you to deny it.’

‘I—’ commenced Eleanor, turning sharply round to refute the charge; but the intended falsehood stuck in her throat, and never came to utterance. She could not deny her love…

So the “deny/reject” meaning has a long pedigree.

And while Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 defines “refute” only as “prove false or erroneous”, the OED lists other, older meanings.

It first records the “disprove” meaning in 1533. Another definition, “to demonstrate error”, goes back to 1572, although the OED says this usage has now become rare. The earliest known meaning was “to refuse or reject (a thing or person)”. This was a Scottish term that the OED now says is obsolete; its first example is from 1513 and its last 1686.

These are intriguing variations on what kind of opposition counts as refutation – but all the same, the “disprove” meaning was clearly dominant by 1700. In the 1800s, though, the “deny/reject” usage – not a million miles from the original Scottish meaning – started to creep in.

And eventually Robert Palfrey Utter noticed it. Like-minded critics have taken up his cause ever since, fighting a hundred years’ war and suffering defeat after defeat as the usage has gained more and more ground.

Take the Guardian. Its style guide stands firm against the not-so-new meaning (“this much abused word should be used only when an argument is disproved; otherwise contest, deny, rebut”) but its articles often don’t. I looked at 20 of its recent uses of the word: 5 of them meant “disprove”, 14 meant “deny” or “reject” (8 in quotes, 6 in the journalists’ own words), and one I couldn’t tell.

I found a similar picture – banned, but used anyway – in the Telegraph.

The growing use of the “deny/reject” meaning has bred growing acceptance. Almost all contemporary dictionaries list it, although many give a usage note like this from the OED:

Criticized as erroneous in usage guides in the 20th cent. In many instances it is unclear whether there is an implication of argument accompanying the assertion that something is baseless

The American Heritage Dictionary suggests that opposition to this meaning is fading: in 2002, 62% of its usage panel (an assortment of literati) approved of this example: “In the press conference, the senator categorically refuted the charges of malfeasance but declined to go into details.”

Among usage commentators, Bryan Garner and Steven Pinker oppose this; those accepting it include Pam Peters and Oliver Kamm. Jeremy Butterfield even-handedly says: “it will sound normal to those who normally use it in this way, and aberrant to those who do not”.

My advice: Don’t waste time fretting about which meaning is “correct”; just focus on what will work for your audience.

For people with academic backgrounds – especially in philosophy or law – you can assume they’ll be happy with the “disprove” sense and they may dislike the “deny/reject” sense. For the public in general, I think the scales have tipped the other way: “deny/reject” is how they most often hear it used, which means the “disprove” meaning may not come across when intended.

On the whole, it’s safest to avoid the word. Unless you’re confident you’ve got an audience who will understand and a context that can point them in the right direction, avoid it.

But “irrefutable” is still safe to use, because its meaning is pretty close to “undeniable”.

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Comments

  • carlamcgill  On February 4, 2016 at 1:43 am

    Thank you for the informative post. I love the fact that someone cares enough about words to delve into the historical meaning of a term and explain it here. Wonderful!

  • tmezpoetry  On February 7, 2016 at 1:43 am

    I appreciate wordsmiths like you that I can learn from. Me, I just run the field sometimes hiding behind poetry lol. You know, less rules there🙂 Lovely site.

  • drews journal  On February 21, 2016 at 9:09 pm

    Sigh…. ‘the Guardian’. The bastion of bad grammar and literary revolutionaries since the advent of socialism.

  • Mitchell Lorens  On March 1, 2016 at 5:28 am

    Fabulous! You’re right up my alley. Would you like to take on the ever burgeoning use of the word “Impact?” I’m just kidding. You’re correct in just considering your audience and using words as understood by particular readers. Thank you for posting!

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