A common bugbear of language critics is the use of refute to mean ‘reject’. A politician might claim to refute allegations of wrongdoing, meaning reject or deny (but not disprove) them. Or a news organisation might phrase the politician’s denial that way; both are common sources of the usage. But because refute traditionally means ‘disprove’, many people consider the broader usage misleading or wrong. Let’s unpack the problem.
Leaving feelings and opinions aside for now, we see that refute is commonly used in two distinct ways. Macmillan Dictionary therefore includes two senses in its definition of the word: 1. ‘to say that a statement is not true or accurate without giving proof’, and 2. ‘to prove that a statement is false’. Most dictionaries broadly echo these, though they may order them the other way around. Macmillan also labels refute as ‘formal’, so it’s not the kind of word you’ll hear in casual conversation unless you hang out with copy editors.
Refute is a fairly old word, having entered English from Middle French and Latin in the 16th century. For the first few hundred years of its existence in English it had various related senses having to do with disproving theories, arguments, people, and so on. But its use as a word meaning reject or deny the accuracy or truth of something is no upstart either – it dates to the 19th century, so it’s had time to become established in the common tongue.
This ‘weakened’ usage has been criticised for almost as long as it has been around, and will continue to take heat for being ambiguous, unclear, sloppy, ignorant, or just plain incorrect. Yet the original sense of refute, according to the OED, is ‘To refuse or reject (a thing or person)’. This now-archaic Scottish usage, which is similar in meaning to the currently disputed one, is older than the ‘disprove’ sense by a couple of decades (pending antedates). The etymological fallacy strikes again.
If you consider it a distinction worth observing, as I do, you’ll use refute only when you mean disprove, and avoid using it as a synonym for reject or deny. But complaints about the latter use of the word are largely futile. Language has a momentum of its own, unmoved by any desire its users may have for greater neatness or logic. The ‘loose’ use of refute has been around for a while, it is very common, and it is not going away.Email this Post
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.