In a comment about yesterday's post "Geoff and the Language Guardians", Stephen Jones listed some of "the usual collection of nutters" who were featured on BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth program, including "one who pretends there's a difference between 'disinterested' and 'uninterested'". Some other commenters politely expressed surprise and concern, including the suggestion that "the difference is still observed by many people who are not 'nutters'".
Outeast observed that this is yet another a case, like imply and infer, where the segregation of meanings between the two words is emergent and incomplete, rather than traditional and under siege. This is an interesting and curious feature of the ecology of peevology. In most areas, what is fashionable is seen as new, and out-groups are censured for being behind the times. But there are some things, English usage among them, where disdain must by convention be directed at innovators. This convention is so strong that it overrides mere fact. When a word's meaning is becoming more specialized, with an older sense being abandoned, those who hold to the old ways must be castigated for failing to maintain a traditional distinction.
In support of outeast's brief remarks, I thought I'd quote the OED's testimony at greater length.
For disinterested, the OED gives two senses, with an indication that the older one is now deprecated by some.
1. Without interest or concern; not interested, unconcerned. (Often regarded as a loose use.)
a1612 DONNE Βιαθανατος (1644) 99 Cases, wherein the party is dis-interested.
1684 Contempl. State of Man I. x (1699) 113 How dis-interested are they in all Worldly matters, since they fling their Wealth and Riches into the Sea.
2. Not influenced by interest; impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced; now always, Unbiased by personal interest; free from self-seeking. (Of persons, or their dispositions, actions, etc.)
1659 O. WALKER Oratory 115 The soul..sits now as the most disinterested Arbiter, and impartial judge of her own works, that she can be.
1705 STANHOPE Paraphr. III. 435 So should the Love to our Neighbour be..Not mercenary and designing, but disinterested and hearty.
Citations for the simple negative sense (1) continue to 1970.
1960 Guardian 2 Mar. 7/2, I am always annoyed when anybody refers to me as a religious poet. Could a poet be disinterested in religion?
1970 Daily Tel. (Colour Suppl.) 15 May 20/4 Oxford, after three successive defeats, are almost entirely disinterested in the Boat Race.
It's easy to find more recent examples from good writers as well.
For uninterested, the OED gives three senses, overlapping with the meanings of distinterested, with a note that the older senses are obsolete, while in competition with the newer one, disinterested is "increasingly common in informal use, though widely regarded as incorrect".
1. Unbiassed, impartial. Obs.
a1646 J. GREGORY Posthuma, Episc. Puerorum (1649) 107 By this uninterested disguis, the more to justifie the Celebrations.
1660 R. COKE Power & Subj. 49 Nor do I think that any uninterested casuist will deny [etc.].
2. Free from motives of personal interest; disinterested. Obs.
1661 (title), A Relation of the business..concerning Bedford Levell,..by a person uninterested.
1704 N. N. tr. Boccalini's Advts. fr. Parnass. III. 191 What think you of uninterested Men, who value the Publick Good beyond their own private Interest?
3. Unconcerned, indifferent. In this sense disinterested is increasingly common in informal use, though widely regarded as incorrect.
1771 Ann. Reg. II. 253/1 He is no cold, uninterested, and uninteresting advocate for the cause he espouses.
1774 Trinket 54 In this amiable society can my heart be uninterested?
As usual, MWCDEU gives a clear and well-grounded account of the history, both of the words and of the usage debate:
The controversy over these words is one in which it is stylish to lament what has been lost. […]
The discovery that disinterested and uninterested were differentiated in meaning seems to have been an American one, and it was made at nearly the same time as the discovery that disinterested was being used to mean "uninterested". Our earliest evidence is from The Century Dictionary of 1889 […] Many commentators, from the beginning of the 20th century through the 1940s, repeated the distinction; lament for the lost distinction does not appear to have begun until about 1950:
… the noble word "disinterested" is thus being lost, because so few writers (and virtually no journalists) will write the word "uninterested" any longer. [Ruth Shepard Phelps Morand, letter to the editor, American Scholar, Winter 1949-50]
[…] The notion that the ethical sense [of disinterested] is older, as expressed by numerous commentators, is erroneous. The OED shows that the earlier sense of disinterested is the simple negative of interested; it is dated before 1612; the earliest attestation of the ethical sense is 1659. Curiously, the earliest uses of uninterested are for ethical senses (both 17th century); the modern use is not attested until 1771. The OED editor, James A.H. Murray, was uncertain of the status in his time of the simple negative sense of disinterested, marking it "? Obs[olete]." The 1933 Supplement removed the label and presented, without comment, three modern citations, all British, all dated 1928. This evidence refutes the assertion of Anthony Burgess, quoted in Harper 1985, that this use of disinterested is "one of the worst of all American solecisms." On the contrary, it is the discovery of the usage problem that is American.
I'll note at this point that another feature of the BBC program was an interview with the letters editor of The Times, who said that about half of all the letters sent to them are usage complaints, and that complaints about Americanisms are the largest category of these.
MWCDEU goes on to analyze the actual patterns of usage of these words over time:
As with many issues of English usage, when much heat of opinion is generated, the subtleties of genuine use by purposeful writers are frequently overlooked (compare, for instance, ENORMITY, ENORMOUSNESS). The evidence shows a marked distinction between the way in which the ethical sense is used and that in which the simple negative sense is used.
You should buy the book (if you don't already own it!) and read the rest. The summary:
The alleged confusion between disinterested and uninterested does not exist. Nor has the ethical sense of disinterested been lost — Merriam-Webster files show it used more than twice as often as the other senses. Disinterested carries the bulk of use for all meanings: uninterested is much less frequently used. In current use, distinterested has three meanings: an ethical one, "free from selfish motive or bias"; a simple negative one, "not interested"; and a slightly more emphatic one, "having lost interest". Of these the simple negative is the oldest, the ethical one next, and the "having lost interest" the most recent.
The ethical sense of distinterested is applied both to human and abstract subjects, but more often to the latter; the simple negative sense is usually applied to human subjects. About half the time it is used in the construction disinterested in — this construction is not used for the ethical sense.
Uninterested originally had ethical senses (its earliest), which appear to be dead.
In tracing the history of these words, it's important to note that the stem interest itself has undergone an evolution, starting in the 15th century as
1. The relation of being objectively concerned in something, by having a right or title to, a claim upon, or a share in.
In the 16th century, this concept develops a natural figurative extension:
2. a. The relation of being concerned or affected in respect of advantage or detriment; esp. an advantageous relation of this kind.
And the dominant modern use — given as the first sense in the AHD entry — to refer to a "A state of curiosity or concern about or attention to something", doesn't develop until the 18th century:
7. a. The feeling of one who is concerned or has a personal concern in any thing; hence, the state of feeling proper to such a relation, or a particular form or instance of it; a feeling of concern for or curiosity about a person or thing.
1771 MACKENZIE Man Feel. vii. (1803) 9 There are certain interests, which the world supposes every man to have.
1811 Ora & Jul. IV. 115 No one ever appeared to take an interest about us.
It seems to me that the central question about the usage of disinterested, in fact, is whether or not the semantic evolution of the word interest should drag disinterested and uninterested along with it. The current peevistical prejudice — although expressed as defense of a traditional distinction — in fact amounts to deciding that uninterested should follow the evolution of interest, while disinterested should not, thus creating a new distinction. This prejudice probably reflects the fact that disinterested has for a long time been much commoner.
In works published before 1900, LION has 1,957 hits for disinterested, compared to 107 for uninterested. This is enough of a difference for people to have become used to associating disinterested with the (once entirely compositional) sense of "not being concerned or affected in respect of advantage or detriment". As interested has been used less and less to mean "concerned in respect of advantage or detriment", and more and more to mean "curious about something", disinterested has retained an association with the older meaning, while uninterested, being rarer, has not. This emergent difference can be sharpened by rejecting the equally compositional interpretation of disinterested as "not feeling concern for or curiosity about a person or a thing", and some people have taken this step, without realizing that this restriction of the word to an older (i.e. before 1771) sense is in fact an innovation.
It's an innovation that I support, but it's far from being a successful one. I just checked the first 20 (of 1,029) examples of disinterested in this morning's Google News index, and 15 of them are the (perfectly correct and compositional) sense of "not feeling concern for or curiosity about a person or a thing", as against 5 meaning "not being concerned or affected in respect of advantage or detriment".
So if you want to urge everyone to join us in the modernizing minority who restrict disinterested to what MWCDEU calls the "ethical" sense, and use uninterested only to mean "incurious", feel free. But don't accuse the majority of being barbarians vandalizing the citadel of linguistic tradition, because they're not.