Q: The increasing use of “refute” as a synonym for “deny” is threatening to finally separate me from the last vestiges of my sanity. I have always thought the former to mean “disprove,” which is very different than “deny.” I just read such an example in an Alaskan news article that sent me running to you.
A: You’ll be disappointed by our answer. Historically, “refute” and “deny” have had separate meanings. But over the last half-century or so the distinction has blurred, and today the use of “refute” to mean “deny” is accepted as standard English—at least by the editors of all nine dictionaries we’ve checked.
However, you’re not alone in objecting to the newer usage. Even some of the standard dictionaries that accept this sense acknowledge that there’s still resistance to it. And none of the usage manuals we’ve consulted wholeheartedly endorse the new sense, though some see the writing on the wall.
Here, for instance, are the senses of “refute” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.):
(1) “To prove to be false or erroneous; overthrow by argument or proof,” as in “refute testimony.”
(2) “To deny the accuracy or truth of,” as in “refuted the results of the poll.”
Both are accepted as standard, but the dictionary adds this in a usage note:
“This second use has been criticized as incorrect or inappropriate since the early 1900s, despite being common. A majority of the Usage Panel accepts the use as a synonym of deny, but not by a wide margin. In our 2002 survey, 62 percent accepted the example In the press conference, the senator categorically refuted the charges of malfeasance but declined to go into details. This suggests that many readers are uncomfortable with this usage and would prefer to see deny in these contexts.”
Merriam-Webster Unabridged has similar definitions but adds that the second meaning “has frequently been cited as an error by commentators on English usage.”
The same is true with Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.), which accepts both meanings, but adds that the “deny” sense of “refute” is a “usage objected to by some.”
However, Merriam-Webster.com, an updated and expanded version of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), accepts both meanings as standard, and without comment.
Similar definitions, without caveats, appear in four of the standard British dictionaries we consulted—Collins, Longman, Macmillan, and Cambridge online. All accept without reservation that “refute” can mean either to prove that something is untrue or to say that something is untrue.
Another British reference, Oxford Dictionaries online, accepts the new and old senses of “refute,” but adds a caveat similar to ones in American dictionaries.
Just because the newer sense is standard, though, doesn’t mean you have to use it. We don’t use “refute” to mean “deny.” The traditional sense is also standard, and that’s the one we use. However, you’ll have to endure the use of the newer sense by others.
For the time being, you’ll find support in most usage guides. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, for example, notes that “refute” has “two senses, both of which are in common use, but one of which is widely regarded as an error.”
The usage guide notes, however, that the disputed use of “refute” to mean “deny” is “extremely common, and the contexts in which it occurs are standard”—that is, in speech or writing widely accepted as correct.
“Its most frequent use is by journalists reporting the emphatic denials issued by those accused of wrongdoing,” the usage guide adds. “Hardly a day now goes by, it seems, without one government official or another refuting a new set of allegations.”
In The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2004), the linguist Pam Peters says “it seems unlikely that the objections can be sustained much longer in the face of usage. It may rankle with those who like to keep words in the state to which they are accustomed, but language moves on.”
We suspect that the traditional use of “refute” to mean “disprove” may be lost as the verb is increasingly used to mean “deny.” At some point, even traditionalists may have to abandon “refute” and use a term like “disprove” or “rebut” to make sure they’re understood.
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary, says English borrowed “refute” in the early 16th century from Anglo-Norman and Middle French, where refuter meant to prove something wrong, contest something, or reject someone. The ultimate source is refūtāre, classical Latin meaning to suppress or disprove something, or to prove someone wrong.
The verb meant to refuse or reject someone or something when it first appeared in English, according to the OED. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Benedictine monk Henry Bradshaw’s biography of St. Werburgh, patron saint of the author’s monastery in Chester, England:
“Her royall dyademe, and shynynge coronall / Was fyrst refuted, for loue of our sauyoure” (from The Holy Lyfe and History of Saynt Werburge, written sometime before Bradshaw’s death in 1513 and published posthumously in 1521). An Anglo-Saxon princess, Werburgh gave up her coronet to become an abbess.
Two decades after Bradshaw’s death, the verb took on what is now considered its traditional sense, which the OED defines as to “prove (something) to be false, esp. by means of argument or debate.”
The first Oxford example is from a 1533 polemic that Thomas More wrote during a theological debate with William Tyndale: “If Tyndale wold now refute myne obieccion of ye Turkes and theyr Alcharon.”
The use of “refute” to mean “deny” showed up in the 19th century. The earliest OED citation is from an 1886 satire of poor English: “Mind, i ain’t a snob; I utterly refute that idear. I don’t judge bi the koat he wares, or the joolery, or nothing of that kind.”
The dictionary’s next example is from a Canadian newspaper, the Manitoba Morning Free Press, Jan. 13, 1895: “Members wish to refute the assertions … that Hayes council ‘is on its last legs.’ Never in the history of the council was it in better shape.”
We’ve seen several possible earlier sightings, though it’s often hard to tell whether “refute” is being used in the sense of “disprove” or “deny.” As the OED notes, “In many instances it is unclear whether there is an implication of argument accompanying the assertion that something is baseless.”
In Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, for example, Emma wonders why she doesn’t like Jane Fairfax:
“Mr. Knightley had once told her it was because she saw in her the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself; and though the accusation had been eagerly refuted at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her.”
And in The Warden (1855), the first of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, Eleanor Harding is asked if she’s in love with John Bold:
“ ‘I—’ commenced Eleanor, turning sharply round to refute the charge; but the intended falsehood stuck in her throat, and never came to utterance. She could not deny her love, so she took plentifully to tears.” (The excerpt is from a conversation between Eleanor, the warden’s daughter, and Bold’s sister, Mary.)
The earliest objection to the newer usage, according to the M-W usage manual, is from Every-Day Words and Their Uses, a 1916 usage guide by Robert Palfrey Utter:
“To refute a statement, opinion, accusation, imputation, or charge, is not merely to call it in question, or deny it without proof, but to disprove it, overthrow it by argument, show it to be false.”
Henry Fowler doesn’t mention “refute” in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), which suggests that the new sense was uncommon at the time. But Sir Ernest Gowers, editor of the 1965 second edition of Fowler’s guide, says one refutes something “only by producing the evidence.” Without evidence, one “could only deny it.”
In the 1996 third edition, R. W. Burchfield writes, “I have an uneasy feeling that the new sense will begin to sound normal in the 21 c.—but not yet.”
And in the 2015 fourth edition, Jeremy Butterfield says that “it will sound normal to those who normally use it in this way, and aberrant to those who do not.” We assume it sounds aberrant to him. But the century is still young.