So you think you can refute, do you?
We turn attention today to a word subjected to frequent careless misuse, refute. While it is repeatedly used in the loose sense of “to challenge” or “to take exception to,” its traditional, formal sense has been “to disprove conclusively.”
To be used in this sense, refute would mean that not only the challenger but also the person challenged would agree on the point. People being what they are, that would mean that refute in the strict sense would almost never be seen.*
The word that most people are reaching for when they pluck up refute is rebut: I challenge, I disagree.
A vivid illustration of the distinction between refute and rebut has come up this week since Virginia Thomas, wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, left a message to Anita Hill inviting her to announce publicly that she is a liar.
Nineteen years ago, in Senate confirmation hearings, Ms. Hill accused Mr. Justice Thomas of improper behavior, which he denied. He rebutted the accusations vigorously, comparing the confirmation hearings to a lynching.**
But he did not refute them. The testimony before the Judiciary Committee was not conclusive for either side, and people’s beliefs about which party was untruthful dovetail neatly with their political beliefs. So today there are many people who believe that Ms. Hill was speaking out of animus (the scorned-woman hypothesis) or acting as the tool of liberal groups bent on derailing the nomination. There are many people who believe that Mr. Justice Thomas perjured himself to gain a seat on the court.
And so it stands. Anita Hill’s testimony will be mentioned in articles on the day that Mr. Justice Thomas retires from the court, and will be mentioned again, more discreetly, in his obituary. This appears to be what is eating at Mrs. Thomas, explaining why, two decades later, it would be urgent for her to approach the one person who can move the needle from rebut to refute.
Certainty, in our sublunary world, is elusive, no matter how much people attempt to establish it by sheer volume of expression.
*Some writers, in apparent solidarity with Sarah Palin, have used the portmanteau word refudiate, refute plus repudiate, in serious published work. You Don’t Say refrains from commenting on the legitimacy of this usage because all the returns are not in.
**It appeared at the time, and some may think so still, that United States senators are less troubled by the accusation of misogyny than of racism.