Meaningful shifts

March 22, 1996

Jean Aitchison (THES, March 22) is right to reject the pedantic, xenophobic and snobbish prejudice of many of her correspondents. But she quotes with evident approval a sneering attempt to stereotype their personalities. Professor Aitchison presents herself as the chairperson of modernity and as a democrat; she counterposes to the authoritarian resistance of the menopausal old fogeys and obsessives, the democratic dynamics of the marketplace.

Since her article did not examine any instance of how meanings shift over time, let me risk being ridiculed as a "one-word worrier", and therefore mentally deficient in some way, by looking at the word "refute". This is defined in my crusty old Oxford dictionary as "prove falsity or error", but it has also gradually come to be used as a synonym for "deny". As a result, journalists may now report that P. R. Backhander, MP, has "refuted" this or that allegation when he has only denied it.

I am not qualified to explore the reasons for the shift. Undoubtedly there is a fine democratic majority of the people who have come spontaneously to recognise the benefits of smudging the two meanings in this way. Probably the matter has nothing to do with politicians' devout desire that the public should take their statements as proven, or the willingness of media corporations (through whose agency new usages are partly validated), to indulge them repeatedly by uncritical quotation. It would be even more fanciful to suggest that Aitchison's role as the Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communication has any connection with her thoroughly modern and democratic views on such matters. To such a charge, she could, and surely would respond: "I refute it." But, as some of us would insist, this would still actually amount only to a denial.

S. J. WRIGHT Postgraduate student King's College London

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