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