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Refudiate: An understandable mistake?

Refute, repudiate, refuse? They can be confusing!

When Sarah Palin keyed the word “refudiate” into some Twitter messages in 2010, it became an instant sensation, especially among her critics, who mocked the former governor for her use of a word that does not exist. But Palin was by no means the first person to say or write this apparent blend of refute and repudiate, two words that, blended or not, are known to be occasionally confused. Along with refuse, these comprise a set of words that not only share similar sounds, but also share a subtle overlap in meaning:

When you prove a statement of fact to be false, you have refuted it (they tried to refute Einstein’s theory). But if you refute an allegation, this means you deny that the allegation is truthful, you reject its validity—which is the same as saying you repudiate the allegation (the claims that human rights had been violated were refuted; who will repudiate these accusations?). In another sort of rejection, if you repudiate a policy, practice, or philosophy, you are rejecting, renouncing, or disowning it (we have always repudiated communism); you might even say you refuse to be associated with it.

Of the three words, refuse is the least likely to be confused, as it is most commonly used to indicate that one is not willing to do something, or not willing to allow something (I refuse to eat another meal here; he’s been refused admission to two universities)—uses for which refute and repudiate would not likely be considered. But when refuse indicates yet another sort of rejection (she refused his amorous advances), the overlap is worth noting.

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