CAN YOU PROVE IT? Don’t use refute unless you can go to court and prove your claim.

Years ago somebody mentioned the term “straw man” and the expression went over my head, because I had no idea what it meant.

But I do know that throughout my newspaper career I refrained from using refute to mean deny and I made sure reporters and contributors in my sphere of influence did not use refute to mean deny.

In recent times, however, refute has found its way into our news media more frequently.

I am inclined to think it is because some elements in the news media want to make their reports appear stronger.

I dare not mention the word sensational.

But let’s come back to straw man.

Here is an obscure term representing a situation that might be making a comeback, if it ever left us.

Its origins seem to be unknown.

My big dictionary takes up several pages to define straw, but when it comes to straw man it simply says “a man of straw” – decidedly unhelpful.

I might ask for my money back.

A popular explanation for straw men is that it used to represent aperson who stood outside a court with a straw in his shoe, meaning his testimony could be bought.

He would deny anything.

Can you imagine a person standing outside a courthouse these days with a bit of straw in his shoe?

Somebody might walk up to him and say “hey mate, you’ve got a bit of straw in your shoe”, but it is more likely that he would be told to move on or a good lawyer would destroy his evidence in court.

I can accept that a straw man was a man without assets. He didn’t have to be dishonest to have no assets.

The term also covered someproposed legislation, put forward in draft form, to determine what the public thought of it before amendments were made.

I have a concern that some media outlets – not this newspaper of course – will deliberately, or accidentally, misread an argument so they can reject it.

It might be better if I don’t record a specific example, but I know that many times I have screamed at the television, or sometimesnewspapers, something like “hedidn’t say that”.

Anyway, what about refute and deny?

We used to say a person denied something. The word refute meant, and in my book still refers to, denying something and offering proof.

So when you appear in court you can say to the judge “I didn’t do it” and watch as his eyes glaze over and he says to himself “I think I’ve heard this before”. That’s a denial.

But you can refute the argument that you stole lollies at Spencer Street station last Saturday if you can prove that you were in Afghanistan at the time of the theft.

Incidentally, when I was a little boy a popular term at the time was Afghanistanism.

That meant newspapers having a preoccupation with nothing of importance – or anything that had nothing to do with anything else.

These days, Afghanistan does mean something.

I just thought I would throw that in.

But next time you hear a television station say something like “he refuted the suggestion” that station almost certainly means he denied the suggestion.

I concede that in our livinglanguage, a refutation is coming around to a denial.

But just remember not to stand in front of the courthouse with a bit of straw in your shoe.

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