Language Alert: ‘Refute’ Does Not Mean ‘Deny’

The article itself is interesting and worth reading for its substance – Defense Secretary Panetta on Al Qaeda, strategy, and Iraq.  Though it does make a bit of a mountain out of a molehill – Panetta seems to have been looking to find ways to tell troops still facing dangers in Iraq that theirs is an important mission and related to 9/11 and defense of the United States, not make grand policy statements.  A little application of the principle of rhetorical charity is in order, meaning here, don’t get your knickers in a twist over-interpreting something.

That said, however, the Inner Pedant can’t help but call the attention of the copy editors at the Washington Post to this sentence opening the article:

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday appeared to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq as part of the war against al-Qaeda, an argument controversially made by the Bush administration but refuted by President Obama and many Democrats.

It is unlikely that the reporter, Craig Whitlock, actually meant “refuted by” – if he did, I suppose we’d have to have a discussion instead about editorializing in a news story.  But he almost certainly meant “denied.”  This is not mere pedantry – if usage is evolving this way, there is a loss of important meaning.  Refute has a specific meaning that implies far more as a logical or evidentiary proposition than deny, and it would be unfortunate if the two terms gradually became conflated.

Update:  Thinking about it at the gym – 20% O2, granted – I thought if I had been writing or editing the article, I probably would have preferred “contested” to denied.  I don’t think “repudiated” quite fits, because it carries at least a suggestion, perhaps ambiguous but a suggestion, that Obama and many Democrats had once held this position and then repudiated it.

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