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  • Richard Farr

Refuting my own pet language peeves

According to an Associated Press story today, Satoshi Nakamoto has “refuted” allegations that he is the mystery man behind Bitcoin.

As we all know, the journalist responsible didn’t mean this. There is no evidence and no indication that Nakamoto has been able to refute (that is, disprove) the allegation – in fact, it seems highly likely that it’s true. Even if it turns out not to be true, he hasn’t (yet) refuted it; what he has done is denied it.

This distinction actually matters. You know, rather in the way that the distinction between night and day matters.

But language changes, this is one direction in which it’s changing, and fifty years from now it’s certain that caring about this usage will seem as quaint as caring about people who fail to use “whom.”  Caring about the distinction will continue to matter – one hopes – but language in its infinite flexibility will find a way to avoid the AP ambiguity. So why care?

I think it’s a bit like conservatism about religious language. I’m an atheist. But I grew up with the grand old 1662 version of the Lord’s Prayer, and on those rare occasions when I’m still dragged to a church service it drives me wild to hear God addressed as you when it should be thou, or hear about the time of trial when it should be, so much more bracingly, evil. The more modern version destroys all the best rhythms of the old, too, but the main thing of course is that it’s, well, just objectively wrong, dammit!

In other words, I’m being irrational. But still: journalists who don’t even notice their conflation of two ideas as fundamentally different as deny and refute? As claim and demonstrate? Really???

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