I'm sure I've heard a verb that means this, but it might be colloquial, and possibly quite specific to a certain group of people.

The context is that person 'A' has tried to give a precise definition of some grand concept. For example, 'A' says "life can be defined as any system that maintains a low entropy by degrading an energy source" Person 'B' then gives a counterargument along the lines of "ah, but under that definition, wouldn't a candle flame also be considered alive?" In other words, 'B' has satisfied 'A's definition, but not in a way that 'A' will like, thus forcing 'A' to change her definition. 'B' can then be said to have ____ed 'A's original definition.

As Brian Donovan points out in a comment, the classic example is that when Plato defined 'human being' as 'featherless biped', Diogenes produced a plucked chicken, causing Plato to amend his definition. (To 'featherless biped with fingernails'.)

The word might also refer more generally to giving someone what they've asked for, but according to the letter rather than the spirit of what they said, thus not actually being what they wanted at all.

Invalidating a definition in this way is a special case of reductio ad absurdum of course, but I'm looking for a word that specifically describes this case.

I'm also not looking for general words meaning to invalidate or disprove; the word I'm thinking of (if it exists) refers very specifically to the case of showing that a definition is more broadly applicable than was originally intended.

The word I'm looking for (still, nearly three years later) might be somewhat humorous in nature.

  • possibly this would be more at home on philosophy.SE - please let me know if that's the case
    – N. Virgo
    Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 15:53
  • In mathematics, they're called degenerate cases. Like the degenerate conic sections. Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 15:57
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    The problem for me is the phrase "in an unsatisfying way". Unsatisfying to whom? This seems to require a word whose meaning changes according to one's point of view. I get the idea but I think you could perhaps tidy up the question. For example, I could place "refute" or "rebut" in the blank in your sample sentence and they would work perfectly. I don't think they are what you are after though. Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 16:40
  • 4
    The classic case is when Plato defined human being as featherless biped and Diogenes produced a plucked chicken. Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 16:46
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    Tellingly, your edit includes the verb invalidate suggested several hours previously by Tushar Raj.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 18, 2015 at 14:34

8 Answers 8


B has refuted/invalidated/disproved/debunked A's definition.

  • refute: Prove (a statement or theory) to be wrong or false; disprove

  • invalidate: Make or prove (an argument, statement, or theory) unsound or erroneous

  • disprove: Prove that (something) is false

  • debunk: Expose the falseness or hollowness of (an idea or belief):


  • 1
    +1 I think invalidate fits this well. It can be used in the OP's example and also in Brian Donovan's example 'Diogenes invalidated Plato's definition'. Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 17:10
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    @LittleEva: Hi. I've been swamped. Nay, quicksanded. Avalanched. I'll return soon as i can.
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 7:19
  • Glad to hear you're still with us Tushar, ping me when you can. :-)
    – user98990
    Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 16:28
  • @Mysti: In the immortal words of T-1000: I'll be back :) I miss this place.
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 23:07

The first word that came to my mind was "torpedoed". The second example at Merriam-Webster is

Her injury torpedoed her goal of competing in the Olympics.

It has more of the negative connotation than the "satisfaction" criteria of the question, but just another option.



person A provides a definition of "life", person B's interpretation to the letter falsifies the previous definition.

'B' can then be said to have falsified 'A's original definition.

Alternatively, if person B successfully contests A's argument, B has demonstrated that it is flawed. Thus B challenges A's definition, A is forced to review and reassess their previous statement however contrived B's counterargument may have been, consequently A's argument is now incontestable (impossible to question because of being obviously true.)


Perhaps B has brought up a technicality. B might be playing Devil's advocate.


'B' has contradicted 'A's original definition:

1.1 Assert the opposite of a statement made by (someone):
he did not contradict her but just said nothing
within five minutes he had contradicted himself twice


A asserted specific qualities as the definition of life, but B asserts that those qualities are unfit to define life by satisfying A's definition with an absurd conclusion.


What you cite could be called an instance of the Socratic method or elenchus, although both Socratic method and elenchus encompass more than mere analysis of concepts or definitions.


For the examples given, "reified" might work. In the examples something abstract or conceptual (pure) is being degraded or diluted by extending it to the concrete.

He reified my elegant concept with vulgar particulars.

Reify: to treat (an abstraction) as substantially existing, or as a concrete material object. Origin of reify. ; from Classical Latin res, thing (see real) + -fy. (Yourdictionary.com)

Reification (fallacy), the fallacy of treating an abstraction as if it were a real thing (Wikipedia)


The standard term for this is counterexample. A counterexample is a particular case that disproves a universal claim. A proposed definition of a term can be refuted by an example that fits the definition but doesn't fit the way the defined term is actually used: that would be a counterexample showing the proposed definition to be too broad, overinclusive. It could also be refuted by an example that doesn't fit the definition but fits the way the term is actually used: that would be a counterexample showing the proposed definition to be too narrow, underinclusive. A definition can, however, be disproven only in so far as it is trying to capture the way the term is actually used; in a purely stipulative definition there would be nothing to disprove.

  • The OP’s sample sentence requires a verb, not a noun.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Aug 15, 2021 at 15:59

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