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4 Comments

  • The OED actually says that the “rebut” sense dates to 1533, while the “disprove” sense only dates to 1574. If anything, we should be arguing that the upstart “disprove” sense is an error.

  • Jonathon: Well, it depends on how you interpret rebut, since it straddles both the ‘reject’ and ‘disprove’ senses. The 1533 usage of refute falls under the OED’s sense 2: ‘To prove (something) to be false, esp. by means of argument or debate’; subsense a: ‘To rebut (an opinion, theory, claim, etc.)’. So I was conservative in my argument but reached the same conclusion as you.

  • There’s a nice example of the “disprove” use in one of Boswell’s stories about Dr. Johnson. Boswell was asking his opinion on Bishop Berkeley’s philosophical theory that matter did not really exist. Boswell continues: I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’

  • Thanks for reminding me of that anecdote, Michael. It’s a great example – maybe the quintessential one – of the word’s ‘disprove’ sense, and points to Johnson’s wit, like the stone itself, as an incontrovertible force of nature.