shift in "refute": another example

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed May 13 14:00:38 UTC 2009

At 1:00 PM +0000 5/13/09, ronbutters at wrote:
>To some extent, refutation is on the eye of the beholder. When Dr.
>Johnson kicked the stone and exclaimed, "I refute Berkeley thus!"
>should he ought to have said "deny?"

Actually, that fits perfectly well under the earlier definitions:
Dr. J. was (in his mind) *proving* the error of Berkeley's
anti-realism by showing that the stone exists.  He was not (merely)
*saying* that Berkeley was in error, he was (as he saw it)
*demonstrating* the error.  Clemens was not demonstrating the falsity
of the charges in the book, he was asserting the charges were false.
Ron, surely someone with your CV as an expert witness in many courts
of law will appreciate that distinction, will he not?  You (or more
to the point Berkeley) would not necessarily accept the causal
relation of Johnson's kick to the rock's resistance and/or movement
as a successful overthrow of the anti-realist position, but I think
it's clear it was so intended (at least jocularly).  I don't think
Clemens saying his (many) accusers are completely wrong is intended
to demonstrate the falsity of their claims, even for someone with a
"whatever-I-say-three-times-is-true" mentality.

>Does S. Johnson incite Charlie's inner prescriptivist? Is Larry's
>example a true shift, or just a continuation of a hyperbolic
>tradition extending back 270 years?

I'd need a better demonstration than this of the lineage of OED's sense 5.

(Incidentally, in response to Charlie's note on "rebut", the OED
doesn't even give the 'deny' sense for that verb, but I suspect it's
at least as active there--"A new book came out implicating Clemens in
the use of illegal performance-enhanciing steroids and human growth
hormone, and the same day Clemens took to airwaves and rebutted the
charges (by denying their accuracy)."  I can imagine this.  Let's see
what verbs the Times uses this morning...
"denied"..."disputed"..."said it was
impossible"..."called...completely false".  In the absence of
evidence (even evidence on the level of Johnson kicking Berkeley's
stone) none of these for me rise to the level of rebuttals or
refutations.  YMMV.


>------Original Message------
>From: Laurence Horn
>Sender: ADS-L
>To: ADS-L
>ReplyTo: ADS-L
>Subject: [ADS-L] shift in "refute":  another example
>Sent: May 12, 2009 11:21 PM
>Crawl on ESPN SportsCenter:  "Roger Clemens refutes new book,
>_American Icon: The Fall of Roger Clemens and the Rise of Steroids in
>America's Pastime_".  And just how did Roger Clemens refute these
>well-researched charges levelled against him by four reporters in
>that book?  Apparently by claiming that the charges were false.
>The OED has for REFUTE:
>to prove (a person) to be in error  [not relevant here; no proof offered]
>to disprove, overthrow by argument, prove to be false [ditto]
>to demonstrate error [no demonstration, just assertion]
>Then it allows:
>Sometimes used erroneously to mean 'deny, repudiate'.
>[Yup, that's the one; it's been around since at least 1964.]
>Can "refute the fact" = 'deny the claim' be far behind?
>The American Dialect Society -
>Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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