20 Jun

It seems that the ability to see the shades of meaning between words is slowly declining. A good example appeared in a recent article in Writing Magazine, in which the use of the word Refute as a synonym for Deny was denounced on the grounds that it is actually a synonym for Prove/Disprove. In fact the word is located somewhere between the two in meaning rather than being a synonym.

To use these words as an example of the gradation of meaning, we begin with Deny which means exactly that, no more and no less. Denial is just saying “No, that is not true” about something and tells us nothing about the veracity or accuracy of the statement. Next up, we might qualify the form of denial, so that the accusation is hotly or strenuously denied. Again, this tells us nothing specifically about veracity or accuracy, beyond the fact that the denier is keen to stress their denial, being the equivalent of “No, that’s not true, how could you think such a thing?”

Going beyond denial, we find Refutation. Although it is, indeed, often used as a strong form of denial equivalent to a strenuous denial, it means more than that, although less than proof. Refutation should indicate not just denial but an undercutting of the accusation. “No, that’s not true and I have witnesses to prove it.” Until the witnesses are produced (and, perhaps, even after, if their testimony is unreliable) the accusation has not been disproved, but it has been refuted. Most often, refutation carries overtones of logical argument rather than evidential proof; in other words, refutation relies upon showing a fallacy in a claim’s logic rather than actually proving it to be wrong in practice.

Going a step beyond refutation, we arrive at Proved (and, in this context, Disproved), which means that the undeniable facts of a matter are revealed. This goes beyond the logical undercutting or counterarguing of refutation into showing that something is or is not the case by producing hard evidence. “No, that’s not true, the CCTV shows that I was fifty miles away at the time.”

I am not terribly concerned about fears that language is somehow being destroyed by change – language is always changing and continues to function well enough, despite some quite odd reversals and shifts in meaning – but I do think it is a shame that people make less and less use of nuance in their language use, depriving us of shades of meaning and leading us into a truly dumbed down state akin to a Janet and John narration. So, please, don’t allow your words to become a homogenous blur.


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