Sunday, 20 November 2011


Now here is a thoroughly conservative post. I want to fight in the last ditch to rescue the word "refute".

All right - words change meanings. "Nice" once meant "precise", as in the fossilised phrase "a nice distinction". "Horrid" once meant "hairy, prickly". A "revolution" was once a cyclical movement, in politics as it still is in mechanics.

I still want to stop the word "refute" losing its old meaning.

The established meaning is to prove something false. It's being weakened radically to mean "strongly deny", almost certainly because it sounds too much like "rebut", which does mean deny. Well, if "refute" loses its original meaning, we still have "disprove", though that sounds weaker even if the meaning is the same. But the problem is that "refute" continues in its old, strong meaning in a number of contexts. To refute a proposition in science or mathematics is to prove conclusively and for all time that it can't be correct. The proposition that the sun revolves around the earth has been refuted. The contrary proposition was rebutted, not refuted, by the Catholic Church. In chess, to refute a move is to devise a response so devastating that the best chess players, having studied all the possible lines that could follow, conclude that no-one should ever make that move again. Moreover, a "refutation" still seems to mean a proof of falsehood, not just a rebuttal.

"The minister refuted suggestions that his remarks were meant to undermine the Prime Minister". No he didn't - he rebutted them. How could he refute such suggestions anyway? It's not provable or disprovable.

On another note (semi-deliberate pun), I've just listened once more to Nielsen's Fourth Symphony. It draws out my soul on a string. It is brilliant and moving. Too many people aren't aware of Nielsen's music. Another fight I'm a foot-soldier in...

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