Don’t Dis Disinterested



We recently heard from a reader who defended using disinterested to mean “uninterested.” To most language mavens, this amounts to high treason. The sticklers insist that disinterested can only mean “impartial, unbiased”: you’d want a disinterested judge at your trial—an uninterested judge would just want to go home.

Our correspondent made two compelling arguments. His first was pragmatic: countless people nowadays use uninterested and disinterested interchangeably. (True, but countless people also use infer and imply interchangeably, and no one is suggesting they are synonyms.) His second argument was historical: both words meant “not interested” back in the seventeenth century. (That may be, but writers and scholars have affirmed the words’ different meanings for many generations now.)

The writer Ben Yagoda conducted a survey in his advanced writing seminar and found that ninety-four percent of his students believed that uninterested and disinterested both mean “not interested.” But after further study, including an Internet search, Yagoda concluded that the formal meaning of disinterested, while imperiled, is safe for the time being. It is inarguable that words change and evolve, but the traditionalists are determined to keep these two words distinct, with wholehearted support from most English authorities.

Largely absent from this discussion is the difference between the prefixes un and dis. In adjectives, un simply means “not,” whereas dis can mean several things, including “deprived of,” “the opposite of,” “in a different direction.” Let’s observe un vs. dis in action with other common words …

• If you are unaffected, you are unchanged (or unpretentious). If you are disaffected, you are alienated from authority or at odds with society in general.

• You are unable if you cannot do a task at a given moment, but you may never be able to do it if you are disabled.

• When you’re uncredited, you haven’t received the recognition you deserve. When you’re discredited, your reputation has been sullied.

• If you don’t measure up, you are unqualified, although you can change that with a little hard work. But once you have been disqualified, it’s over for you.

• If you feel unease, you are restless or uncomfortable. There is much more on the line when you have a disease.

So the prefixes un and dis cannot be considered interchangeable. We see from the examples above what a difference un and dis can make when one rather than the other precedes the same root word. We should take this evidence to heart and resist excuses for making uninterested and disinterested synonymous.

 

Pop Quiz

Pick the correct word. Answers are below.

1. Despite her demands for equal pay, she claims to be uninterested/disinterested in the theory of feminism.

2. As a(n) uninterested/disinterested observer, I can enjoy the game more than a diehard fan is able to.

3. This uninterested/disinterested truth-seeker was getting it from both sides.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Despite her demands for equal pay, she claims to be uninterested in the theory of feminism.

2. As a disinterested observer, I can enjoy the game more than a diehard fan is able to.

3. This disinterested truth-seeker was getting it from both sides.

Posted on Tuesday, November 18, 2014, at 1:10 pm

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6 Comments on Don’t Dis Disinterested

6 responses to “Don’t Dis Disinterested

  1. Sara Krull says:

    I am always amused when someone staunchly defends the correct meanings of words such as “disinterested” and “uninterested.” One reader argued that many people use both words interchangeably in today’s world, which you say is not a good enough reason to assign them the same meaning. This same reader also points out the both words meant “not interested” back in the seventeenth century. I wonder how they came to have different meanings? Did the dictionary committee decide to give them different meanings, or did the variance come about through everyday use of the words? You do not seem willing to accept the fact that language changes through use, yet you adamantly promote different meanings for two words that once meant the same thing, but now don’t. (In other words, their meanings changed.) You accept the change that occurred oh so many years ago, but you are not willing to accept the change that is occurring today — the one that would return the original meanings to them. Lest you think I’m being overly critical, I, too, fall into this same trap from time to time. It’s funny how we want to hold on to what we know and what is familiar when language by its very nature is a living, breathing thing. I subscribe to the philosophy that the rules that govern language are descriptive and not prescriptive, yet I can be very snobbish about using the correct word. (Does no one know the difference between bring and take anymore, or less and fewer?) I enjoy your newsletter very much, and look forward to receiving it each week. Thanks for keeping us on our grammatical toes!

    • We are aware that “prescriptivist” has negative connotations for many people today. We console ourselves in the belief that the culture would miss us if we went away.

      It is odd that you characterize us as not willing “to accept the fact that language changes” when we acknowledge that fact in our article (“It is inarguable that words change and evolve”), and it is one of the recurring themes in our essays.

      Many changes occurring today are like mutations that make an organism more vulnerable. Too often they are the result of hurry, sloppiness, imprecision, and ignorance of and disdain for history. That is not a valid basis for change in our eyes.

  2. Jeremy Johnson says:

    I enjoy your grammarbook.com blogs and am constantly learning.

    The Don’t Dis Disinterested blog provides some excellent examples of why (for me) the word “disinterested” means “lost interest in something previously interested in” (e.g. discredited, disqualified…)

    Uninterested = not interested in something
    Impartial = free from bias (no need to to duplicate this definition with disinterested)

    For these reasons disinterested should be used to mean that someone has lost interest in something that they previously had interest in.

    Regards,
    Jeremy

  3. Danielle says:

    I agree, I would rather have a disinterested judge than an uninterested judge. Yet popular opinion would have its say and cause a change in dictionary definitions. Even though it is allocated to position 2 it may find its way to position 1 in time.

    Merream-Webster
    dis•in•ter•est•ed
    adjective \-təd\
    : not influenced by personal feelings, opinions, or concerns
    : having no desire to know about a particular thing: not interested

    Google search:
    dis•in•ter•est•ed
    adjective
    1.
    not influenced by considerations of personal advantage.
    “a banker is under an obligation to give disinterested advice”
    synonyms: unbiased, unprejudiced, impartial, neutral, nonpartisan, detached,uninvolved, objective, dispassionate, impersonal, clinical; More

    2.
    having or feeling no interest in something.
    “her father was so disinterested in her progress that he only visited the school once”
    synonyms: uninterested, indifferent, incurious, uncurious, unconcerned, unmoved,unresponsive, impassive, passive, detached, unenthusiastic,lukewarm, bored, apathetic;
    informalcouldn’t-care-less
    “he looked at her with disinterested eyes”

  4. Jace says:

    I completely agree that we should use the words disinterested and uninterested correctly. I’ve often seen the word disinterested being used incorrectly over the past few years in social media posts because of an ignorance of its proper meaning rather than a progression of the language. What’s next? Disimpressed instead of unimpressed? Unregarded instead of disregarded?

  5. Meghan says:

    I’m going to have to agree with Jeremy. I would rather have an impartial judge before a disinterested judge. An impartial judge reads interested and unbiased. A disinterested judge reads unbiased and bored.

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