An ABC News headline reads, “Rep. Maxine Waters Refutes Ethics Charges”; the opening sentence of the story uses the same word — “Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., today adamantly refuted charges brought against her by the House Ethics Committee.”
But is this quite right? As I understand, Rep. Waters denied the charges; one might also say she rejected them, or responded to them. But my sense is that “refute” tends to convey the message that some allegation is actually being disproved, not just denied or responded to. The Random House Dictionary takes this view; and while the Oxford English Dictionary and the World English Dictionary give both definitions (“disprove” and “deny” or “reject”), this means that at best the headline is ambiguous. More likely, if the Random House definition is considered, the dominant connotation of “refute” is indeed to “disprove,” which means that most people’s first reaction on reading the headline would be that Rep. Waters either disproved the charges or at least introduced powerful evidence that (in the newspaper’s judgment) comes close to disproving them — something that the body of the article does not, in my view, support.
Of course, if over time the commonly accepted meaning of “refute” changes to mean “deny,” that will be the new meaning; I am certainly not abandoning my descriptivist position on this. Likewise, if “refute” loses any dominant connotation of disproof, and comes to mean “either disprove or deny,” with no view being dominant, then such a headline would at worst be misleading. But my sense is that neither of these has happened, and “refute” still first raises in most people’s minds the sense of “to prove to be false or erroneous” (to quote the Random House). If I’m right on this, then it seems to me the headline can properly be faulted for being likely misleading, and at the very least ambiguous.