Degrees of Rejection

‘Refudiate’ may have a use after all

The “words of the year” lists are beginning to appear, and we’re generally going to ignore them, since those words so often disappear.

But the selection of “refudiate” as the New Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year presents an irresistible opportunity.*

No, we’re not going to ridicule Sarah Palin. First of all, this is not a political column. Second, she was not the first person to use “refudiate.”

Instead, let’s look at why “refudiate” might actually be necessary as a nuanced word for “reject.”

“Refudiate,” of course, is a conflation of “repudiate” and “refute,” words with similar but very specific uses. “Repudiate” means “to refuse to accept or support; deny the validity or authority” of something, or “to deny the truth” of something. “Refute” is more limited, meaning “to prove (an argument or statement) to be false or wrong, by argument or evidence.” In other words, if you merely reject the notion that chocolate is bad for you, you “repudiate” the people who say otherwise; if you have the scientific evidence that chocolate makes you healthy, you can “refute” them.

Now, let’s throw a little complication by adding “rebut,” which means, in effect, “to attempt to refute.” It’s more nuanced than “repudiate,” which doesn’t have to involve an argument.

The difference between “refute” and “rebut” has bedeviled journalists for decades. Gary McCardell, a recovering journalist, wrote recently to say that he had seen a “refute” that should have been a “rebut.”

“When I was first learning about journalism,” McCardell said, “Paul Long, then the news editor at The Chattanooga Times (and my boss on the copy desk) took me to task for letting a reporter say that an accusation had been refuted when in fact it was only rebutted.” Convincing proof that the accusation was wrong was not presented.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that the confusion of “refute” and “rebut” is at least 100 years old, though the use of one when the other was meant is still considered wrong.

Add in the frequent confusion over “repudiate,” which is often used in a sense of “I refuse to pay” or “I refuse to believe” as well as “I distance myself from it,” and you have a muddle.

So why not “refudiate” as a general term for rejecting something, based on belief or evidence? After all, that’s how Palin used it, in the tweet heard ’round the world: “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.” She was, after all, asking for people to speak up, without specifying that the rejection be based on evidence (“refute”) or belief (“repudiate”).

Just saying “refudiate” should be a word doesn’t make it one, of course. And while some dictionaries are more liberal than others, not even NOAD, which named “refudiate” its word of the year, is ready to grant it entry just yet.

Guess you could say that the legitimacy of “refudiate” is being, well, ”refudiated.”

Correction: We originally called the New Oxford American Dictionary the New American Oxford Dictionary. It is the former, not the latter, and the relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , ,