January 14, 2004

"Refute" for "Deny" -- we're on the case

Some time last year I noticed the new use of refute that Mark pointed to in his posting on "Google sociolinguistics " and we included it as an item on the most recent ballot we sent to the members of the American Heritage Dictionary's usage panel (of which I bear the august if empty title of chair). I don't have the results of that one yet, but we were remiss in not checking on the use of the verb with a that-complement that Mark observed -- the item we gave the panelists was "In a press conference, the senator categorically refuted the charges of malfeasance but declined to go into details." We should ask about the sentential complements in a future ballot -- I'd be surprised if the panelists accept this one, but it's always useful to know the percentages and to see their comments.

In case you're curious, some of the other items on the last ballot were counterfactual may, as in "If John Lennon had not been shot, the Beatles may have gotten back together," and insoluble for "unsolvable," as in "Many racetracks are plagued by a seemingly insoluble problem: a shortage of horses that results in small fields." We also included some compounds with self-, like the ubiquitous self-identify, which has a number of uses. I'm okay with "self-identified lesbians," say, but have more qualms about intransitive uses like "Students with special needs should self-identify at registration." And I balk at "The program first and foremost works to establish relationships with women, and strives to meet their diverse self-identified needs" (though I don't know why this bothers me more than phrases like "Limbaugh's self-confessed addiction to prescription painkillers" or "His self-confessed 'obsession' with Indonesia," which are all over the place if you look for them). We'll see if the panel makes these distinctions, at least in their degree of collective approval.

Then there's the coinage self-irony (ca. 4000 Google hits), an item that suggests the final conflation of irony and sarcasm that signals the passing of an age as well as anything else I can think of. (Are modern-day freshmen writing "self-irony" in the margins of their copies of Emma?). But maybe the panelists will be more accepting of this than I am.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at January 14, 2004 02:12 PM