Jeudi Entente Cordiale Blogging

(What follows is pretty trivial, so I really don’t recommend you read it.)

One of the things I come across from time to time is people – especially young people – using the word “refute” to mean “disagree with”, “oppose” or “deny” rather than, as the OED neatly puts it, “to disprove, overthrow by argument, prove to be false.” (Indeed, the OED notes the incorrect usage, and labels it incorrect, with a series of examples that I’ve placed over the fold.) (I’m sure there’s someone out there who thinks that postmodernism is something to do with this, but that’s a conversation for another occasion.)

Anyway, this Summer, Le Monde has a daily feature revisiting past controversies that have beset what it calls the “intelligentsia hexagonale”. So this week we’ve had discussions of the bicentenaire, Heidegger, the Bibliothèque Nationale, and today (i.e., the issue dated vendredi) we’ve had the affaire du foulard in its original 1989 incarnation. And it’s in this last piece that we find this:

Dès le 24 octobre, Guy Coq, membre du comité de rédaction de la revue Esprit, pousse un premier cri d’alarme dans les colonnes du Monde. Il réfute l’argument de la différence culturelle à  respecter. C’est le maintien même de la tolérance qui “périrait si les diverses communautés religieuses entraient en compétition pour s’emparer de l’espace laïque de l’école, pour en briser l’unité, pour y manifester non pas l’esprit d’accueil pour chaque individu en lui-même, comme simple humain, mais le signe de la clôture de chaque communauté contre les autres”.

Now unless my French is even worse than I think it is (which is wholly possible), that looks suspiciously like using “réfuter” to mean “deny”, i.e., following the incorrect English usage of “refute”. So is this because the French verb has a broader meaning than its English equivalent, ranging all the way from “deny” to “disprove”, or is the same bad habit that the Anglophones have developed shared by Francophones? And, if so, has it spread from England to France or vice versa, or is it properly autochthonous in both linguistic communities (if that’s not too pretentious an expression to use)?

I may just be barking up the wrong tree, or just barking. But any thoughts are more than welcome.

5. trans. Sometimes used erroneously to mean “deny, repudiate”.

1964 C. BARBER Ling. Change Present-Day Eng. v. 118 For people who still use the word in its older sense it is rather shocking to hear on the B.B.C., which has a reputation for political impartiality, a news-report that Politician A has refuted the arguments of Politician B. 1978 Observer 7 May 4/9 Mr O’Brien, who was first elected general secretary three years ago, refutes the allegations. 1979 Daily Mail 17 Feb. 15/3 He refuted allegations that she took her own life because of police harassment. 1980 Bookseller 19 July 257/1, I refute Mr Bodey’s allegation that it is our policy not to observe publication dates, and to display new titles in newsagents immediately on receipt from the publisher.

5 thoughts on “Jeudi Entente Cordiale Blogging”

  1. My assumption was that both public figures and newspapers fearful of libel needed a version of the verb to deny that did not carry a strong implication that the denier was either lying or deluded; and the incorrect sense of refute filled that need. Still annoying, though.

  2. That’s right, isn’t it: so someone can be filmed on the Nine O’Clock News saying “I have refuted these allegations”, leaving it wholly unclear whether they’ve done anything more than express displeasure with the fact that they’ve been made in the first place.

  3. If you consider that French has a substantially smaller number of words than English then it is quite possible that refuter covers a multitude of sins. I have always been amused, for example, by the fact that “doigt” means both fingers and toes. Amusing or uncomfortable.

  4. I find that the French make the mistake even more than we do. They use “refuter quelqu’un” to mean to contradict someone, go against their views (i.e. to attempt to prove them wrong without any necessary entailment of success in doing so.) However, I don’t think this is considered by them a mistake. For it is often the case with French verbs that the direct object changes the sense. “Refuter quelqu’un” and “Refuter quelque chose” needn’t use the same sense of “refuter”. “Refuter quelque chose” obviously entails success in disproving, as is consistent with the objective and impersonal standards set out by “quelque chose”. Likewise the subjective and personal standards set out by “quelqu’un”, means that objective success doesn’t enter into it. The French can get around this by saying “Monsieur P refute la theorie de Monsieur Q” (entails success) instead of “Monsieur P refute Monsieur Q” (does not). As concerns the extract above, that is simply mixing the usage of “refuter” in “refuter quelque chose” with its sense in “refuter quelqu’un”. It is therefore a mistake.

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