The sad decline of “refute”

From the 16th century until about 40 years ago, “refute” had only one definition:  ”to disprove by reasoned argument or evidence.”

Linguists began to complain in the 1960’s that “refute” was increasingly used as a synonym for “deny.”  Evidence or argument was no longer required.

The latter usage became widespread in the news media in the past decade — so widespread, in fact, that it is now included as a second definition in many dictionaries.

Of course, plenty of errors and malapropisms have found their way into common English over the same period.  The nonsensical malapropism “hone in” (sharpen inward?) is now universally substituted for the original “home in.”  The misspelled “supercede” is now an acceptable substitute for the original “supersede.”  Words ending in “own” are increasingly pronounced as two syllables, i.e. “known” sounds like “knowen,” “shown” sounds like “showen.”

But unlike those harmless cases, the redefinition of “refute,” which conflates reasoned argument with simple denial, can be seen to symbolize the general decline of reasoned argument in the Anglophone world over the past generation.

One Response to “The sad decline of “refute””

  1. Eric Says:

    I refute this via George Will’s favorite quote boy source:

    “After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. 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.’ ”
    – Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791