Refute or rebut?

16 Jan

Rebut and refute are a bit like confound and confuse – closely related but still subtly different meanings. I was at a translators’ meetup at the weekend (linked to a website/community I use to get proofreading and localisation jobs) and we were talking about how there are often 2 words in English for one concept (often one Anglo-Saxon and one Romance) and there are also subtle shades of meaning expressed by slightly different words, which would need longer phrases in other languages. Anyway: rebut or refute?

Rebut something is to claim or prove to be false. It comes from an archaic sense of driving back or repelling, which gives it a subtle difference from refute.  When you rebut something, it’s a rebuttal. I prefer that word to refutation, for some reason.  Rebut comes from Anglo-Norman …

… whereas refute comes direct from the Latin. To refute is to prove a statement or the person advancing it to be wrong.  So it’s more a discussion than a direct refusal and shoving back, which is what rebut feels like to me. Refute is often used nowadays in the sense of denying a statement or accusation. However, this use is not accepted by traditionalists – it’s marked as being “disp.” (disputed) in my New Hart’s Rules, so we won’t go there!

So, two similar words, two similar concepts, two slightly different emphases or shades of meaning. This is what keeps English rich and creative and keep these pairs alive!

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.


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