Monday, July 19, 2021

Another futile low growl in the morning

I snarled one morning on reading that someone had refuted another party in a political dispute, deploring the erosion of the word's strict sense of "to prove wrong."  

But it has been a long time since Samuel Johnson could reply to the argument of Bishop Berkeley that the objects of our senses are not actually material objects by dashing his foot against a stone and saying."I refute him thus!" Today, I think thanks mainly to journalists, the sense "to deny the truth or accuracy of" or "to dispute" is prevalent. 

Thus when you read that one bombastic politico has "refuted" another bombastic political, you are to understand that the one merely rebutted the other, proof being in short supply among us these days. 

You may feel, as does Bryan Garner, that refute "doesn't mean merely 'to counter an argument' but 'to disprove beyond doubt; to prove a statement false,' " and that the "rebut" sense is an error. But Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage points out that the "rebut" sense became standard in the twentieth century, and it can be found today in all the dictionaries. 

What then to do. There is always the option of taking to some online platform to whinge that people who use the "rebut" sense are uneducated cattle and that English is rotting away before our eyes. (You know the type.)

But the language goes where it will, even if I do not care for the direction. That leaves me, in practice as a writer and editor, to frame a necessary question: If I want to use refute in the older, strict sense, can I be sure that readers will understand how I mean it? 

If I can't pile up enough context to bolster the "prove wrong" sense, then I am better off abandoning the enterprise.