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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Meanings of Words: "To Refute"

Few things are more important than the giving of information, and a lot of information exists in the form of words. Therefore it's essential that they be used accurately so as to avoid as few misunderstandings as possible. But languages quite often work against understanding. This must be because there are many more meanings than there are words to go around or that people want to learn. So -- especially in a language as complex as English -- there are thousands of words that have to perform multiple duties, and that doesn't help the human mind that already has to deal with so many other complexities.

A good example of this is the verb "to refute." Maybe this has always had a second meaning: "to contradict" or "to deny." So political writers especially will write that "so-and-so refuted something when he said that what this other so-and-so said isn't right and there such-and-such is really the case." But in using "refute" in this way, no evidence to back up that opposing notion is presented.

I don't know whether "refutation" has always had that second meaning or whether it is instead a quickly spreading recent development, like a linguistic virus. But coming from the chess world, that use of the word is intensely jarring and misleading to me.

In chess, refutation is a key and clearly understood and agreed-upon concept. There the word is always used in its first meaning and in that one only. There it doesn't mean mere denial or contradiction. Insead it means to show that an opponent has just made a mistake, and if he is sharp enough the player accomplishes that demonstration in no uncertain terms by answering with a move or moves that quickly lead to a definite and often winning advantage.

This is another area in which chess involves useful lessons that it can offer to the larger world.


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