Arrant Pedantry

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Distinctions, Useful and Otherwise

In a recent New York Times video interview, Steven Pinker touched on the topic of language change, saying, “I think that we do sometimes lose distinctions that it would be nice to preserve—disinterested to mean ‘impartial’ as opposed to ‘bored’, for example.”

He goes on to make the point that language does not degenerate, because it constantly replenishes itself—a point which I agree with—but that line caught the attention of Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski, who said, “It’s a useful distinction, but why pick a problematic example?” I responded, “I find it ironic that such a useful distinction is so rarely used. And its instability undermines the claims of usefulness.”

What Mr. Sokolowski was alluding to was the fact that the history of disinterested is more complicated than the simple laments over its loss would indicate. If you’re unfamiliar with the usage controversy, it goes something like this: disinterested originally meant ‘impartial’ or ‘unbiased’, and uninterested originally meant ‘bored’, but now people have used disinterested to mean ‘bored’ so much that you can’t use it anymore, because too many people will misunderstand you. It’s an appealing story that encapsulates prescriptivists’ struggle to maintain important aspects of the language in the face of encroaching decay. Too bad it’s not really true.

I won’t dive too deeply into the history of the two words—the always-excellent Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage spends over two pages on the topic, revealing a surprisingly complex history—but suffice it to say that disinterested is, as Peter Sokolowski mildly put it, “a problematic example”. The first definition the OED gives for disinterested is “Without interest or concern; not interested, unconcerned. (Often regarded as a loose use.)” The first citation dates to about 1631. The second definition (the correct one, according to traditionalists) is “Not influenced by interest; impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced; now always, Unbiased by personal interest; free from self-seeking. (Of persons, or their dispositions, actions, etc.)” Its first citation, however, is from 1659. And uninterested was originally used in the “impartial” or “unbiased” senses now attributed to disinterested, though those uses are obsolete.

It’s clear from the OED’s citations that both meanings have existed side by side from the 1600s. So there’s not so much a present confusion of the two words as a continuing, three-and-a-half-century-long confusion. And for good reason, too. The positive form interested is the opposite of both disinterested and uninterested, and yet nobody complains that we can’t use it because readers won’t be sure whether we mean “having the attention engaged” or “being affected or involved”, to borrow the Merriam-Webster definitions. If we can use interested to mean two different things, why do we need two different words to refer to the opposite of those things?

And as my advisor, Don Chapman, has written, “When gauging the usefulness of a distinction, we need to keep track of two questions: 1) is it really a distinction, or how easy is the distinction to grasp; 2) is it actually useful, or how often do speakers really use the distinction.”1Don Chapman, “Bad Ideas in the History of English Usage,” in Studies in the History of the English Language 5, Variation and Change in English Grammar and Lexicon: Contemporary Approaches, ed. Robert A. Cloutier, Anne Marie Hamilton-Brehm, William A. Kretzschmar Jr. (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010), 151 Chapman adds that “often the claim that a distinction is useful seems to rest on little more than this: if the prescriber can state a clear distinction, the distinction is considered to be desirable ipso facto.” He then asks, “But how easy is the distinction to maintain in actual usage?” (151).

From the OED citations, it’s clear that speakers have never been able to fully distinguish between the two words. Chapman also pointed out to me that the two prefixes in question, dis- and un-, do not clearly indicate one meaning or the other. The meanings of the two words comes from different meanings of the root interested, not the prefixes, so the assignment of meaning to form is arbitrary and must simply be memorized, which makes the distinction difficult for many people to learn and maintain. And even those who do learn the distinction do not employ it very frequently. I know this is anecdotal, but it seems to me that disinterested is far more often mentioned than it is used. I can’t remember the last time I spotted a genuine use of disinterested in the wild.

I think it’s time we dispel the myth that disinterested and uninterested epitomize a lost battle to preserve useful distinctions. The current controversy over its use is not indicative of current laxness or confusion, because there was never a time when people managed to fully distinguish between the two words. If anything, disinterested epitomizes the prescriptivist tendency to elegize the usage wars. The typical discussion of disinterested is often light on historical facts and heavy on wistful sighs over how we can no longer use a word that was perhaps never as useful as we would like to think it was.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Don Chapman, “Bad Ideas in the History of English Usage,” in Studies in the History of the English Language 5, Variation and Change in English Grammar and Lexicon: Contemporary Approaches, ed. Robert A. Cloutier, Anne Marie Hamilton-Brehm, William A. Kretzschmar Jr. (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010), 151

10 Responses to Distinctions, Useful and Otherwise

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    I’ve never heard “disinterested” used in conversation, although I may have heard it used in a speech. I have read it as “disinterested observer,” where the meaning is clear from the context. This is one of those prescriptivist controversies that waste a lot of breath. I get much more excited over the misuse of “effect” and “affect,” or “imply” and “infer.”

  2. Tricia says:

    To me, uninterested means [not[interested]] while disinterested means [pointedly[not[interested]]]. I might expect to see it used ironically or in a negative, as in “you’re hardly a disinterested party.”

  3. The claim that “disinterested” was “perhaps never as useful as we would like to think it was” is unwary. In the following sentence the distinction between “disinterested and “uninterested” could result in a disastrous misunderstanding at worst and bad manners at best: “Go ahead and sell your stock of our floundering company: I am disinterested.”

  4. Jonathon says:

    It’s certainly possible to come up with sentences that are ambiguous between the two meanings, especially when the sentence is contrived and lacking context. But my main point is that there was never a time when these two words were distinct in meaning; they’ve been used interchangeably to some degree since their inception. We may like to think that the distinction is useful, but over three centuries of usage says otherwise.

  5. The sentence I adduced is far from contrived and unequivocally evinces the importance of distinguishing the two words. The OED clearly states that using disinterested to say unconcerned or not interested is “increasingly common in informal use, though widely regarded as incorrect.” It is true that in the 17th century the two words were used interchangeably. But “three centuries of usage”, as you point out have favored a veritable distinction in English over the last century or so (from Fowler’s the King’s English (1906) onward).

    Consequently, I think it not advisable to bury the distinction yet: it is of value and should be retained—and perhaps even encouraged.

    The only contrivance here is your intransigence born out of blind belief in your advisor’s decree that the prefixes “dis-” & “un-” have no discernible, different meanings: if you took the pain to read through the 8 pages of the “un-” entry in the OED, you shall find that it is quite different from “dis-” and that each prefix has a tendency to denote different things: “un-” is most definitely “not-“—originally in Old English, in a disparaging way—while “dis-” retains its Greek (???) and Latin (dis+) flavor. The Greek has it as “two, two-ways” The Latin has “dis+” modified to “in different directions, away, separately”. Thus, for example, “distend” and “untended” have different meanings given by their prefixes. And so, “uninterested” is not-interested, while “disinterested” is “away-interested”—without stake.

    While I’m taking issue with you, I might as well sign my death warrant and point out that the last sentence of your article should have read “than we should like to think it was.”—not “would”.

  6. Pingback: Am I disinterested or uninterested in this debate? « Motivated Grammar

  7. Jonathon says:

    “The sentence I adduced is far from contrived and unequivocally evinces the importance of distinguishing the two words.”

    Is it an example you made up yourself? If so, then it’s contrived, and as such it’s not a very convincing example. It’s easy enough to make up a sentence or two that supposedly illustrates the importance of a distinction, but such sentences usually don’t correspond very closely to real-world usage and thus overstate the importance of the distinction. Furthermore, an example devoid of context puts undue emphasis on one word that’s intentionally made as ambiguous as possible.

    If it’s truly of value, then it will demonstrate its value through its usefulness. But since it’s a word that’s seldom used, I remain skeptical.

    “The only contrivance here is your intransigence born out of blind belief in your advisor’s decree that the prefixes ‘dis-‘ & ‘un-‘ have no discernible, different meanings.”

    You need to read a little more closely. I said no such thing, nor did my advisor. I said that the meanings of each prefix do not clearly indicate one meaning or the other. I’m well aware that, despite some overlap, they do have some considerable differences in meaning. But even your “away-interested” argument relies on the fact that, as I explained in the post, interested already contains two different meanings. And as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes, disinterested is often used to mean “formerly interested”—meaning now bored—much like other dis- words.

    And on a final note, if you feel the need to comment again, please leave your condescending and presumptuous tone behind.

  8. My pointing out your ignorance of the shall and will distinction, which you seem to ignore—arrantly—must have really irked you, but, then again, I did say I was signing my death warrant in correcting your usage: the first presumptuousness and condescension was unsheathed by your calling my sound example contrived; I merely retorted.
    In fact I admire your site. Good day.

  9. Svafa says:

    A few months late, but I don’t see any difference in Cody’s example were ‘disinterested’ to be exchanged for ‘uninterested’. Perhaps it’s merely my dialect, but both connote the same impartiality or personal lack of interest and it is the context that informs the meaning. Which is to say, in my reading, Cody’s example reinforced the post’s argument: that the distinction is rarely used and not very useful.

    As for ‘would’ vs ‘should’… its introduction lacks tact, and whether intended or not, appears as an attempt at poisoning the well. Even so, exchanging the sentence for the modified “never as useful as we should like to think it was.” I see two issues immediately. First is that ‘would’ and ‘should’ are largely interchangeable, and in this case either works. The second is that using ‘should’ in this case could confuse the intent by implying obligation (“we ought like to think it was.”), something using ‘would’ avoids.

  10. Jon says:

    Hang on, Cody, you could also have the businessman say “Go ahead and sell your stock of our floundering company: I have no interest in it” and it would be equally ambiguous. The fundamental problem is with the multiple meanings of the word interest. But countless words have multiple meanings, and we figure out which meaning is intended by the context. Occasionally, as with our businessman, the context makes the meaning ambiguous. In that case, most intelligent people would simply choose a different word. Your businessman would either say “I have no stake in it” or “Who cares?”

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