Why I disprefer The Dictionary of Disagreeable English to pretty near anything

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I recently used the word disprefer in an email, and my spellchecker objected. That led me to a web search that convinced me that disprefer is (1) widely used in linguistics, (2) not listed in the OED, American Heritage, or Merriam-Webster online dictionaries, and (3) abhorred by some prescriptivists.  This post is about to turn into another of those Language Log rants about some prescriptivist's blunders.  My excuse for adding to this already copious genre?  In this case the self-appointed critic aims his barbs directly at "linguists and their lackeys," (Yeah, really) who he describes as "idiotic" and "disaffected… from sense and thoughtfulness."  When a guy calls you names like that and then gets three out of four of his examples wrong, it's hard to keep a civil tongue, but I'll try.

Robert Hartwell Fiske writes (in The Dictionary of Disagreeable English, 2006, p. 119:

"DISPREFER: Idiotic for dislike (or similar words)." He continues with four (attested?) examples and their proposed corrections.
1. *It's interesting as a spelling pronunciation, preferred by some speakers, dispreferred by others. USE not* Fiske fails to note that dispreferred expresses a contrary negation, not simply a contradictory one. The writer is excluding the possibility that the dispreferring speakers might be merely indifferent to the pronunciation in question, but the use of not would include that possibility.
2. *They never spontaneously produce them; in fact, they strongly disprefer them. USE object to.* The word produce indicates spoken language and spoken choices are rarely conscious. Since object to presupposes conscious choice, it would not be apt here.
3. *In a pinch you can fax it to me at [apparently a real fax number], but I disprefer faxes because of deficient legibility. USE dislike.* The writer intends that he or she prefers other media of communication to faxes. Disprefer does that job directly; dislike indirectly at best.
4. *Other things being equal, we should disprefer blogs to journalism. USE prefer journalism to blogs.* I can't say he's clearly wrong about this one, depending on the information structure of discourse or text. If blogs are the topic, there's a lot to be said for making it the direct object rather than an oblique, the object of a preposition. On the other hand, if there's no strong information structure motivation, there's no reason to use the less frequent and more technical verb. I won't score this one as an error for Fiske, though I suspect it may be.

Robert Hartwell Fiske's summary: "Among linguists and their lackeys, disaffected as they often are from sense and thoughtfulness, disprefer actually does exist. No sentence is improved, none made true or clear, by using disprefer instead of some other wording." No sentence, Mr. Fiske?

In this case at least "disagreeable" applies better to the author of the criticism than the object.


  1. James Kabala said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

    But is the word ever used by non-linguists? I don't think I have ever heard it before.

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

    I like the idea of us having lackeys. Unfortunately, I seem to have been absent on on the day when the operational aspects of the linguist-lackey relationship were explained.

  3. blahedo said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

    The most important nontechnical use of 'disprefer' (for me) is to say that among a sea of choices to which I am largely indifferent, there is some choice that is particularly my least favourite—I may not have any legal, moral, or other objection to it, I just don't like it. I wouldn't say I use this all the time, but I certainly use it regularly when it's appropriate.

    (Also: HTML bug in item 3.)

  4. Nathan said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 11:02 pm

    Disprefer certainly exists among me; I must be a linguists' lackey.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 11:06 pm

    I don't follow the objection to "object." I don't think of "unconscious objection" as obviously less coherent than "unconscious preference."

  6. Brian Buccola said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

    Using this word in conversation, as well as "critically" and "optimally", is a dead giveaway that you are a linguist. I like it.

    @J.W. Brewer: I think in its technical sense "disprefer" implies a (more or less) unconscious preference, while "object" implies a conscious one. For example, you might say that speakers of language X "disprefer" non-nasal codas, though if you asked them if that were true, they'd likely give you a blank stare. Nonetheless, you certainly wouldn't say they "object" to them.

  7. Amy de Buitléir said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 11:32 pm

    I don't think I've ever heard the word before. It baffled me, because I wasn't sure whether it meant simply "don't prefer", or the stronger "dislike". Despite having read the article, the possibility that it meant that "prefer anything over" didn't occur to me until I saw blahedo's comment. "Disprefer" is the most disunconfusing word I've heard in a long time.

    P. S. Just between you and me… you made that word up didn't you? Having a bit of fun at the expense of us non-linguist mortals? It's OK, I won't tell anyone.

  8. Alexa said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 11:37 pm

    A friend once divided the world into classicists and normal people based on whether they got some joke, and then concluded that, since I got the joke and am clearly not 'a normal people', I must be a classicist. (I'm not). By the same argument, anyone who uses 'disprefer' must, by definition, be a linguist or a linguist's lackey, and therefore, only linguists and their lackeys use 'disprefer'.

  9. Vance Maverick said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 11:43 pm

    Like JW Brewer, I feel "prefer" suggests a conscious tendency of choice.

    And for what it's worth, I'm a computer scientist (and literally a linguist's lackey — once was on staff at Haskins Labs), and "disprefer" feels to me like jargon. Perfectly useful jargon: if we say that of alternatives ABCD, we disprefer C, we mean "definitely choose something else if possible", almost as strongly as if we said C was the worst alternative.

  10. Matt said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 11:44 pm

    Amy: It's a real word. I use it all the time (of course, I'm a linguist, and I allow the possibility that I picked it up from my linguist chums, though it doesn't seem particularly jargony to me). For me, "disprefer X" means something like "not choose X when other options are available". This is subtly different from "prefer anything over X", quite different from "not prefer X", and totally distinct from "dislike X" or "object to X".

  11. John said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 12:12 am

    So what's the problem here? The obvious reasoning is that "dis-" is a common English prefix, and "prefer" is a common English verb. You don't need a dictionary entry to explain or justify combining them. The dictionary entries for "dis-" and "prefer" should be all that's needed, and any reasonably fluent speaker should be able to make or understand the combination. Granted, "disprefer" may not be a common word, but it shouldn't be a mystery to anyone with any familiarity with English.

  12. J. Goard said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 12:13 am

    A quick Google search reveals that the word is regularly used in game theory, ethics, political philosophy, and legal theory. A lot of smart people are linguists' lackeys, apparently.

    And how about this comment, from the Gay Thailand forum?

    Topman cannot understand:when the bar dont have enough and goodlooking,younglooking boys,the customers will disprefer it.

    Please keep an eye on what your lackeys are up to, Professor!

  13. Lance said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 12:23 am

    It takes only a simple Google Books search to show how common "disprefer" is among linguists:

    Older speakers disprefer up in passives.
    Rules that disprefer multiple NIL subordinations effectively prevent the parser from taking the 'easy' solution…
    Language appears to disprefer synonymy, whether at the lexical or phonological level.

    …and so forth. Note, too, that none of Fiske's suggestions help in the latter two cases (and possibly not even in the first): rules in a parser and language as a concept cannot "dislike" or "object to" anything, though I have no trouble at all with "disprefer" with a non-volitional subject.

    Regarding Fiske's fourth example, I'll admit that I myself find "disprefer X to Y" quite odd, even though I had no problem with the previous three sentences (and agree with Paul that the proposed "fixes" lose crucial parts of the meaning). "Disprefer…to" seems much less common in Google books–only 27 of 650 or so hits that "disprefer" gets, and many aren't the same construction (e.g., "…what I disprefer, according to what my preferences are like"; "suffixes deriving non-animate nouns disprefer natural gender to a remarkable degree"). Overall web hits seem even more skewed against "disprefer…to."

  14. Peter said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 12:52 am

    I've never come across this word before, but I immediately understood it and see its usefulness. I'm likely to use it in the future.

  15. Nathan Myers said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 12:53 am

    I'm no linguist, and can barely aspire to lackeydom (takers?), but I'm taking quite a shine to "disprefer". Meanwhile… to "object to" something, it seems to me you have to express your objection, where to prefer or disprefer you need only choose, possibly with no one else the wiser. So, he's wrong again.

  16. Amy de Buitléir said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 12:56 am

    John: But that's exactly what I did! Dis- + prefer should theoretically mean "don't prefer" or "unprefer". So what does that mean? You're neutral?

    I understand the meaning now from the comments. But I don't think the meaning is clear from the components. Just to check my understanding of dis-, I checked a few online dictionaries, and roughly speaking…

    dis- = lack of, not, apart, away, undo, remove

    The reason I was confused was that to me, dis- simply neutralises a word. It multiplies the meaning by zero, yielding zero. It's not like anti-, which multiplies by minus one, changing the sign and changing the meaning to the opposite. If you said anti-prefer, I'd have a better idea of what the word meant.

  17. Garrett Wollman said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 1:13 am

    @myl: In my neck of the woods, anyway, lackeys are called "research assistants". Surely they have them at Penn, too? (Although I'm not sure if our linguists have any — I only rarely make my way up to the ninth floor where they congregate, and they aren't supposed to communicate with me directly.)

    [(myl) Research assistants are more apprentices than lackeys. Anyhow, I'm pretty sure that when Fiske wrote about "linguists and their lackeys", he didn't mean "linguists and their research assistants".]

  18. Bob Kerns said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 2:53 am

    There's a void — a need where a word should fit.

    There's a construction — a prefix and a root, which fit together to fill the void.

    Meaning is clear on first encounter.

    A need is met.

    What is the problem?

  19. Bob Kerns said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 3:01 am

    @Amy — OK apparently meaning isn't immediately clear to some.

    But I disapprove of your approach, and disagree with your conclusion. I don't need to disinter my dictionary to understand the word. Simple comparison with other words that use the prefix will disgorge the meaning with a minimum of discomfort, all from the comfort of your armchair.

    I don't mean to discourage dictionary use, but rather, to encourage examining the language you already know. Without such comparison, blind prescriptionist obedience to dicta from the dictionary may lead one astray. For even in the pages of the dictionary, one may find numerous examples of disobedience to its every dictum.

  20. Adrian Mander said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 3:20 am

    So the difference has to do with scope of negation.

    Don't prefer A = not prefer A

    Disprefer A = prefer not-A

    Seems useful and clear to me. I've just added it to my spellcheck dictionary.

  21. J. Goard said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 4:13 am


    In this case, yes, but accidentally rather than from some principle about scope. [disconnect X] is very different from [not connect X], but neither is it [connect not X], which doesn't make any sense. Dis- seems to be about reversing direction of a process or relationship. In COCA, the most common in their base forms (excluding rather opaque cases like discover and 'get rid of X' words like discard, discourage) are:

    5563 disagree
    2568 disappear
    802 dislike
    678 disconnect
    398 disapprove
    294 distrust
    290 disregard
    148 disarm

    The ones which are close to the meaning of 'not X' are so only because the phenomena of often (though not always) viewed as binary. But, as the remain forms clearly indicate, this doesn't come automatically from the meaning of the prefix.

  22. Lance said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 4:17 am

    Garrett–if I read your webpage correctly, in your neck of the woods, the linguists are mostly on the eighth floor; the ninth floor tends to have philosophers, who are an entirely different beast. The linguists up there do somewhat lack in the "research assistant" area, since they tend not to be experimental linguists, and that's where the real lackeyships can be found.

  23. Dan M. said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 4:26 am

    Computer programmer here. 'Disprefer' is a somewhat uncommon, but entirely standard, word at my work. I would guess that it's most common use is in restricting some other preference. E.g. "sort by age, but disprefer objects that need disk access".

  24. Dan M. said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 4:34 am

    Slightly off-topic, but hilarious: Two pages further on in Disagreeable:

    I have selected three rituals that are clear examples of domesticated violence.

    Fiske is probably right is suggesting that 'domestic' is intended, but my first interpretation of the sentence was "(1) sports, (2) tickle fights, (3)… um, dog fighting?"

  25. Spectre-7 said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 4:49 am

    @Amy de Buitléir

    The reason I was confused was that to me, dis- simply neutralises a word. It multiplies the meaning by zero, yielding zero. It's not like anti-, which multiplies by minus one, changing the sign and changing the meaning to the opposite. If you said anti-prefer, I'd have a better idea of what the word meant.

    I suspect that's a rather uncommon understanding of dis-; virtually all of the verb examples that come to my mind (disagree, displease, disprove, disapprove, discharge, disentangle…) seem to be negating rather than neutralizing. Actually, I'm having trouble coming up with any dis+verb combinations that result in neutralization, but perhaps I'm just misunderstanding what you mean by that?

    For reference, Merriam-Webster gives:

    Etymology: Middle English dis-, des-, from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French des-, dis-, from Latin dis-, literally, apart; akin to Old English te- apart, Latin duo two — more at two

    1 a : do the opposite of [disestablish] b : deprive of (a specified quality, rank, or object) [disfranchise] c : exclude or expel from [disbar]
    2 : opposite or absence of [disunion] [disaffection]
    3 : not [disagreeable]
    4 : completely [disannul]
    5 [by folk etymology] : dys- [disfunction]

    As an aside, my spellchecker is currently disagreeing with combinatons. Weird.

  26. Picky said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 5:03 am

    I have nasty, dirty prescriptivist habits, but "disprefer" seems a straightforward, useful coining to me.

    Even the doubt about its exact meaning can be turned to advantage. I suggest we drag "unprefer" into the act as well: then we can invent some arcane distinctions of meaning between the two, and carefully observe these distinctions as a sign of our superior erudition and social standing.

  27. Will said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 5:47 am

    @Picky, don't forgot to throw in Amy's "anti-prefer" as well. And while we're at it, why not "deprefer" and "aprefer" too.

    @Spectre-7: Your spell-checker is marking combinatons as wrong, because it is wrong–that's a typo, missing an "i".

    I find it interesting that this post's title uses the one construction that you won't mark Fiske as necessarily erroneous in objecting to–"disprefer X to Y". I agree that in the first three cases Fiske is clearly wrong, and that employing disprefer results in a different meaning than the alternatives he suggests, and that the use of disprefer is probably the most concise way to express that meaning.

    But in case four, rather than just saying he might not be wrong, I would go further and say that he's actually more right than wrong. I don't think "disprefer X to Y" is a mistake, but I do think it is almost always more awkward-sounding to me than "prefer Y to X", and the meaning is equivalent. And I do think this post's title is a somewhat awkward-sounding.

    Of course I also agree with your point about the information structure dictating the "disprefer X to Y" construction, and in the case of this post's title, the information structure strongly dictates this form because the whole point was to include disprefer in the title. The alternative would just be a bad title. That being said, I still find this title to be a little awkward.

  28. Will said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 6:09 am

    And the exact meaning of "dis-" varies from word to word, but it always includes reversing the polarity of some semantic component (rather than just neutralizing it).

    Connect X to Y = position X such that it is joined to Y
    Disconnect X from Y = position X such that it is separated from Y

    Approve X = assert that X is good
    Disapprove X = assert that X is bad

    Prefer X = when selecting from a set choices, choice X first
    Disprefer X = when selecting from a set of choices, chose X last

    I can't think of any case where it is used to merely neutralize.

  29. Spectre-7 said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 6:27 am


    @Spectre-7: Your spell-checker is marking combinatons as wrong, because it is wrong–that's a typo, missing an "i".

    Good catch, but it's actually marking combinations (double-checks… triple-checks… quadruple-checks) as well. I missed the typo in part because the properly spelled version earlier in my post was also red-lined.

    I'll just chalk it up to an idiosyncrasy in Firefox's default dictionary. *shrug*

  30. Llanci said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 6:53 am

    I've never come across "disprefer" before, as far as I remember, and I would avoid it solely for that reason. Because it's a rare word, the meaning isn't immediately obvious unless you stop and think about it.

    When I saw the headline in my reader, I thought it said "Why I prefer the Dictionary of Disagreeable English", which is completely the opposite of the author's intention.

    Now I could pay more attention to blogpost headlines but if I had been busier today I would have come away with the impression that the Dictionary of Disagreeable English was a Language Log Approved Source. It's a word I would recommend avoiding unless it's absolutely necessary, and I'm not sure I really see the value of it.

  31. andrew c said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 6:59 am


  32. Faldone said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 7:14 am


    My Firefox has no problem with the singular or plural of combination. That said, I like combinaton. It sounds like an elementary particle of a combining form.

    This is the same Robert Hartwell Fiske who, in his rant against the horrible solecism, duck tape, objected to a joke that depended on its being called 'duck tape' for the punch line to work.

    [(myl) Those who are at risk of being fooled by the lack of irony marks in this passage may want to check out William Safire, "Why a Duck?", NYT 3/2/2003.]

  33. lackeydaisy said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 7:57 am

    I've rarely come across that word. A quick googling shows that it's used not only among Linguists & Lackeys, but in any context that involves empirical social sciences. I still tend to avoid it* whenever it can be substituted without loss, but I agree that in the cited examples it cannot. I wonder what makes it so ugly — its newspeakiness?

    *] see? although avoid connotates "willfully"

  34. Frans said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 8:13 am

    In response to the discussion above whether the meaning of disprefer is clear or not: I had to pause and think for a second when I read the title, after which the meaning of disprefer was clear to me from the context. That said, it did seem a somewhat awkward sentence. However, it certainly got both the point of the title and the meaning of disprefer across to me.

  35. Mark said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 8:41 am

    I can't seen any disbenefit in the word disprefer. Amusing to see that both dis-words are underlined in red as I type.

  36. Colin John said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 9:38 am

    I think Amy de Buitléir has come in for a bit of unreasonable stick here. I have seen the word before, but not used it, because to me it wasn't clear which form of negation or reversal the 'dis' implied. Having read this, it appears that there is a reasonable consensus and, given that, I will probably add it to my vocabulary as it does fill a niche – but I'll be careful where and with whom I use it.

  37. language hat said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    So what's the problem here?

    The problem is that it's not a word except to small, relatively closed circles of specialists such as linguists (saving your reverences). And, pace those people who think its meaning is clear on first sight, it's not (and it's telling that some people's response to Amy's saying that she hadn't understood it was to chastise her rather than admit that perhaps they were wrong about its transparency). Hell, I have an MPhil in linguistics, and even I dislike it and would try to avoid it if possible. I think it's fine for use in the field, where you can expect that your readers will be familiar with it, but it's solipsistic verging on insulting to use it with the public at large; showing off specialist vocabulary (which this is) is not polite.

  38. language hat said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    That said, of course Robert Hartwell Fiske is a pompous ass who should be smacked down whenever the opportunity arises.

  39. Sili said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 10:13 am

    Of course he objects. The proper Latinate word must be "postfer".

    (What? No "It's a perfectly cromulent word." yet?)

  40. Zwicky Arnold said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 10:15 am

    On lackey, more or less following up on Mark Liberman's comment above: except in period references (where it refers to 'a footman, esp. a running footman; a valet' — OED2, citations from 1529), the word now comes with a sneer. The transition comes in the extension of the word to 'a constant follower' (now obsolete) and then 'one who is servilely obsequious, a toady' (OED 19th-century cites). (Servants generally get a bad rep.)

    And then in the 20th century we get the more specific sense 'as a term of political abuse: a servile follower', with OED cites from 1939 on (including the 1974 "Bloody fascist lackeys!"). This sense seems to have pretty much swamped the earlier descriptive sense.

    In the plural, the word often occurs in coordination — "X and/or Possessive lackeys" (1973 "The U.S. government or its lackeys") — as in the Fiske quote above.

  41. Daniel said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 10:28 am

    @Brian Buccola

    Using this word in conversation, as well as "critically" and "optimally", is a dead giveaway that you are a linguist. I like it.

    I also like "infelicitous" for this purpose.

  42. Faith said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 10:50 am

    During the brief period in which I was a linguistics librarian (the period in which I became addicted to Language Log, in fact), I suppose I was a lackey to linguists. Librarians are usually lackeys to someone; might as well be linguists.

  43. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    None of the 400+ million words in COCA are disprefer or inflected forms thereof (although there's one instance of the noun "dispreference", which actually strikes my eye/ear as marginally less odd). While that may not suffice to establish that it "isn't a word," I think it confirms that those of us who don't use the word and frankly couldn't immediately recollect having come across it before weren't missing that much. I can't even recall encountering the word during my era as an undergraduate linguistics major (graduated 1987). Did it only become a vogue word in linguistics scholarship more recently, or did I have an insufficiently lackey-like attitude towards the jargon of the field (although there are certainly other bits of highly-specialized jargon I've retained), or was I just not paying attention (certain aspects of my transcript are consistent with the last possibility)?

  44. Amy de Buitléir said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 11:42 am

    @Spectre-7. Yes, my terminology is a bit sloppy because I'm not a linguist. Here's what I meant:

    To me, dis- negates in words like disagree, and displease. If you disagree with a position, that (generally) implies that you agree with the opposite position. If you displease someone, you make them angry or unhappy, you don't leave them feeling neutral.

    On the other hand, I feel that dis- neutralises in words like disprove, disapprove, disenchant, disentangle, disembark, discharge, and so on. If you disprove something, you haven't necessarily proved the opposite. If you disapprove of an action, that doesn't mean you would approve of the opposite action. If you're disenchanted, it doesn't necessarily mean you now hate what you were formerly enchanted with. And clearly once you disentangle something it's back to zero; you haven't "anti-tangled" it.

    Most of the dis- words that come to my mind are sort of neutral like that. That's why I found disprefer so confusing.

    The main problem with disprefer is that it violates de Buitléir's rule: If *I* use a word you're not familiar with, your education or experience is lacking. If *you* use a word I'm not familiar with, you're being a show-off or making up words. :P

  45. J said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 11:57 am

    @language hat and some others on reasonable uses of "disprefer" — it's probably true that its meaning is not immediately apparent, and using it when addressing general audiences probably avoided (dispreferred?), but of course, it depends on the context I think. It is a term that has an obvious jargon aspect, but that doesn't seem to me to make it uniformly verboten. Other, DNA would never have entered the popular lexicon, or quantum… I'm sure those parallels are inapt in several ways, but my point, which I think still stands, is that while clarity to the broadest audience possible is often a laudable goal, this also doesn't mean it should be the only or always the chief goal. It seems to me technical words get disseminated and incorporated popularly through their use outside of strictly technical fora, and while several people said they did a double take or didn't immediately understand the word (or misunderstood its meaning), it's also true that this can happen with perfectly reasonable, standard vernacular constructions, especially reasonable standard constructions that are expressing a counter-intuitive (even if true) claim. Just sayin' — "can people understand this without giving it but a moment's thought" is a high (or ultra-low) car to hold all non-technical communication to. (That said, I also have a love for arcane words, shades of meaning, and being able to express certain moods/valences/concepts precisely. THAT said, I'm no linguist, and probably won't be using this word commonly for all my talk.)

  46. Troy S. said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    Rather curious to see open scorn for linguists as authorities on language, but I suppose that's nothing new.

  47. Mertseger said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    I'm a linguistic lackey and proud of it. However, I prefer the term “minion” . I have no training in the field, but I have become a dyed in the wool descriptionist because of Language Log, and have been known to cite entries here in battle against of the prescriptionistas of the Axis of Evil within the blogosphere.

  48. J said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    Geez — I have no idea why there are so many mistakes in my above post ("car" for "bar", "other" for "otherwise", etc.) but I'm not making a prescriptivist rant so at least I can't be called out there! No Muphry's Law for me.

  49. Chandra said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    I propose that henceforth, the act of disproving prescriptivist claims be referred to as "dis-Fiske-ification".

    Also, I volunteer to be a lackey.

  50. Ellen K. said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    @J.W. Brewer. The problem with "object to" as an alternative to "disprefer" is it doesn't mean the same thing. And in the specific example, there's no evidence that people who commonly choose one word/phrase/construction over another object to the word/phrase/construction not chosen, so "object to" doesn't work.

  51. Picky said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

    I think you linguists worry too much. It's a simple enough formation using a very common prefix, and while it is not clear whether "I disprefer" means "I do not prefer" or "I prefer something other than" or "I prefer the opposite of" or "I stop preferring", either it'll settle down to one meaning or it'll carry a range. So what? This is the first time I've heard the word but I don't find it particularly puzzling.

  52. pete miller said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

    Poetry and children both have many interesting warpages and torsionings of language, all legal but serving to make the brain choke slightly, as the lungs do with a sudden whiff of ammonia or other unpleasant gas. 'Disprefer' is another good one! It fits well with a wonderful pungent comment about some holiday meal by my nephew when he was about 10: Well, I don't love the parsnips …. Apparently it was a common construction for his classmates in 4th grade, a truth-in-humor bit of sass enjoyed by all. I'll introduce 'disprefer' to him as a high-falutin' possibility for his more grown-up years.

  53. Dave said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    Amy de Buitléir: "If you disagree with a position, that (generally) implies that you agree with the opposite position."

    This might be implied when there are obviously only two choices. But there are few situations where only two positions exist.

    Amy de Buitléir: "On the other hand, I feel that dis- neutralises in words like disprove"

    "Disprove" is fairly negative. "Prove" -> establish as true; "disprove" -> establish as false. I'd say "disprove" is like "disagree".

  54. parvomagnus said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    And, pace those people who think its meaning is clear on first sight, it's not…

    That's interesting, as I thought it was. I wonder if it's due, not just to disprefer being a technical term, but to dialect/idiolect differences. 'dis-' + (verb), to me, seems pretty transparently to mean the opposite of the verb. I think Steve Carrell's character on the office once used "disappear to be X" to mean "appear not to be X". Obviously nonstandard, but (I thought) fairly transparent, so maybe 'dis-' has different degrees of independence in different people's idiolects.

  55. Ken Grabach said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    I am not a linguist, and I've not used 'disprefer' before, but it seems a useful word. I believe it is possible to disprefer something while either 1. not disliking it, or 2. liking it but not intensely enough to be the preference. As in, "I like tart apples, but I sometimes disprefer them as an ingredient on a green salad." It doesn't and hasn't, meant I would refuse to eat a salad with this ingredient included, but there are times when my preference would have been to have a salad without them. Dislike, or object to, would have been meaningless in that sentence.

    Who says it's not a word? Not a word, simply because lexicographers have not recognized it? When a lexicographer recognizes it, it has already been in use! Even Mr. Fiske says it is a word, although he obviously disprefers it.

  56. James said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    If you disprove something, you haven't necessarily proved the opposite.
    If you disprove something, you have indeed proved its negation. If you disapprove of an action, you do indeed approve of not doing that action (so, disapproving X is approving not-X).

    Here's a hypothesis: when PHI is capable of negation, dis-PHI is internal negation, not external. (That is, when you disprefer that George be elected, you prefer the negation, that George not be elected, rather than just you do not prefer that George be elected, which is compatible with indifference.)


  57. Kenny Easwaran said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

    I've had the same trouble with spell-check for "disconfirm". I seem to have fixed that in Firefox and my programs that I write in. It turns out to be a very useful word when talking about scientific methodology, regardless of whether or not ordinary people ever use or have heard the word. It looks pretty transparent to me, but perhaps that's only because I'm so familiar with it. (For what it's worth, I think of "confirm" as meaning something like "make more plausible" and "disconfirm" as meaning "make less plausible". On most theories disconfirming p is equivalent to confirming not-p, although I could imagine a view on which the two are separate, particularly if a non-classical logic is involved.)

  58. Mark said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

    I am disinterested and uninterested in this debate.

  59. Alyson said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    Who exactly is a linguist's lackey, anyway? Someone without a linguistics degree who agrees with linguists? Undergrads or graduate students? Anyone who is a non-prescriptivist? Is it possible to be a linguist and a linguist's lackey at the same time?

    The relationship possibilities are very unclear to me! ;)

  60. Stephen Jones said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    The word does appear to have academic links.

    There are 5 examples in the BNC, all from academic papers on social science, and two in the COCA, again from academic papers.

  61. Richard Hershberger said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

    I just want to put in a word for Fiske. The guy is hysterical (in more than one sense). He capably fills the shoes left by John Simon (who I think is still living, but doesn't pop up much nowadays). Fiske has a real talent for raving about things he doesn't understand, and his proposed miscorrections are priceless.

    I used to read his site faithfully back when he just was begging for people to send him money to support his hobby. I don't subscribe since he started actually charging for access, of course. The old site had a lively discussion forum until anyone suspected of linguist-lackeydom was purged. Then for a time there was a slow and uninteresting discussion forum, then no forum at all (the better, presumably, to avoid the dangers of lurking linguists' lackeys). I see now that there is a forum again, but it requires registration to even look at. I didn't check to see if it is restricted to subscribers.

  62. Spectre-7 said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

    @Amy de Buitléir

    Ahhh. I'd started to wonder if that was the difference you saw, but didn't want to make any assumptions. It's an interesting position and had me rethinking things a bit, but the way I look at it, the actions themselves are negative; it's their boundary conditions which are different.

    Take for instance embark/disembark. In pseudo-mathematical terms, I would tend to think they increment or decrement one's embarkedness, with an upper boundary of 1 (aboard), and a lower boundary of 0 (ashore). The non-existence of values >1 (super-aboard) or <0 (anti-aboard) shouldn't affect the relative polarity of the actions themselves. I think.

    Looking through the rest of the list, there's a variety of different boundary conditions. Prove/disprove would range from 1 to -1 (1=proven, 0=asserted but untested, -1=proven false), entangle/disentangle seems to range from 0 to infinity (because you can always be a little more entangled, can't you?), and please/displease is perhaps wholly unbounded (if we imagine that humanity has an infinite capacity for both suffering and joy).

    Which isn't to say you're wrong. These are just the ways the models worked out in my head, for better or worse, and I thought it was kind of interesting. :)

    And if it's any consolation, I'm no linguist either. Heck, I'm not even a lackey, but I would jump at the chance to be one. Any linguists out there looking for henchmen?

  63. Peter Taylor said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

    I had never come across "disprefer" before, and hoped for a definition. Nevertheless, I thought I had a good idea of how it was being used by the end of the article, and example 4 felt wrong. If you choose to replace "prefer journalism to blogs" with a dispreference, I think that "disprefer blogs for journalism" fits better with my intuition.

  64. William Ockham said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

    Is linguist's lackey a paying job? Are we talking 6 figures (in USD, of course)?

    If so, where do I apply?

  65. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

    I don't recall ever seeing this word before.

    1. *It's interesting as a spelling pronunciation, preferred by some speakers, dispreferred by others. USE not* Fiske fails to note that dispreferred expresses a contrary negation, not simply a contradictory one. The writer is excluding the possibility that the dispreferring speakers might be merely indifferent to the pronunciation in question, but the use of not would include that possibility.

    Avoided or seldom used works for me there. Disprefer isn't transparent enough for me to figure out which is meant.

    2. *They never spontaneously produce them; in fact, they strongly disprefer them. USE object to.* The word produce indicates spoken language and spoken choices are rarely conscious. Since object to presupposes conscious choice, it would not be apt here.

    I had trouble understanding that one. If the "dispreference" isn't a conscious choice, the second clause seems like a weaker version of the first, which is unlikely, especially after "in fact". (Am I supposed to use the word pragmatic here? How about implicature?) The verb needs to be something stronger than "never spontaneously use", and the only thing that comes to mind is "explicitly object to"—but you're telling me disprefer doesn't mean that.

    3. *In a pinch you can fax it to me at [apparently a real fax number], but I disprefer faxes because of deficient legibility. USE dislike.* The writer intends that he or she prefers other media of communication to faxes. Disprefer does that job directly; dislike indirectly at best.

    I'd have said dislike is negligibly indirect at worst. And I trust a slight indirectness isn't an objection to a natural phrase.

    As pete miller said, words such as disprefer are like a whiff of ammonia for many of us. He seems to like the idea, but I don't—though it's a bit more tolerable than giving someone an unsought whiff of ammonia! I think disprefer should be reserved for use among those who have all read the MSDS unless it diffuses more widely.

  66. jeffrey said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

    I don't understand the confusion about Fiske's use of the term lackey.

    ¿Isn't a lackey just the opposite of a havey…?

  67. Bob Ladd said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned disambiguate in this context. It sounds horrible and outlandish on first hearing, has a reasonably transparent meaning (which may shed some light on the semantics of dis-), and seems to be used almost exclusively by linguists.

    More linguist giveaways (to add to Brian Buccola's critically and optimally) include modulo and cash out.

    These are actually an interesting class of words – they're not really technical terminology (like, say, metathesis or complementizer or formant transition), but they're not normal vocabulary either. They're almost like slang that defines an in-group. I wonder why the real technical terminology isn't sufficient for that purpose?

  68. Eric said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 7:42 pm

    I first heard—er, saw—the word in a book by John McWhorter; Word on the Street, I think it was. It was enclosed in scare quotes, a sort of acknowledgment that the author knew it was non-standard, but was too apt for the purpose to resist. I remember reading it and trying to think of the “real” word that would be employed there, but could not find a satisfactory alternative. Since then, I’ve found myself unable to resist using the word when appropriate, due to its utility!

  69. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

    Could we have a show of hands among the lackeys? Who knows what lacayo originally meant in Catalan? Not many Catalan words ended up here in English and I'm wondering whether it was an Eskimo snowflake. Did only Catalans find a need for the concept? Do linguists need lackeys around only for etymological reasons?

  70. Jim F said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

    "It is a term that has an obvious jargon aspect, but that doesn't seem to me to make it uniformly verboten. Other, DNA would never have entered the popular lexicon, or quantum…"

    If only somehow quantum could be taken back.

  71. Aaron Davies said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

    @Spectre-7: i am reminded of a friend's habit of snowcloning "on a scale from one to X". her first remark upon embarking would no doubt be "on a scale from one to on a boat, we're on a boat!"

  72. Mark F. said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 9:38 pm

    "Disprefer" is interesting to me because it seems to me that it is a technical term, but one that arose out of informal use among practitioners rather than being formally introduced. It's also somewhat unusual as a term in its broad applicability. I wonder if those traits are why Fiske took notice of that word rather than, I don't know, subjacency. (Although that is in common dictionaries.)

    I just notice that this kind of term-of-art peeve seems to happen more with certain fields, and certain kinds of words within those fields. I've never heard someone complain that mathematicians will say "monomorphic" when "one-to-one would" have done just as well, but I have seen people complain about "parameterize" in an economics paper as one more example of overuse of "ize". ("Monomorphic" and "one-to-one" aren't synonymous, but then neither are "disprefer" and "object to".)

  73. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 10:41 pm

    OK, if "object to" doesn't work, how about, for Fiske's examples 1 and 2 at least, "avoid"? I take it we're working with something analogous to what economists called "revealed preference" here: the usual evidentiary basis in linguistics scholarship for claiming that speakers disprefer a particular option is simply that they seem not to use it (or at least to use it less than the other options). In other words, they avoid it. What, if any, nuance does disprefer add that avoid lacks? Or is it just jargon for jargon's sake, best understood in sociolinguistic terms as a marker of group identity? For me, at least, "avoid" doesn't imply any greater level of conscious volitional involvement than I take it disprefer does.

  74. Dan M. said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 12:53 am

    J.W. Brewer,

    Well, one obvious benefit of using 'disprefer' instead of 'avoid' is that it's obviously the same voluntariness as 'prefer', whatever you take that to be. Surely calling like things alike isn't jargon for jargon's sake, even if considering some pair of features alike is driven by domain interests.

  75. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 1:07 am

    @Bob Ladd: Disambiguate may have started in linguistics for all I know, but it's spread. Wikipedia alone has spread it to maybe ten million people.

    Optimally is pretty widespread among the chattering classes, I think. For critically, is there a sense that's peculiar to linguists? Modulo (meaning "apart from" or "I may have made a mistake in") was borrowed from the mathematicians and is used in all the mathematical sciences (as is the mathematicians' synonym, up to). What does cash out mean to linguists?

    Metathesis is also a technical term in chemistry. I imagine complementizer and formant transition are unique to linguistics (though singers and their coaches talk about those same formants, and, according to Wikipedia, acousticians use the word for the resonances of rooms and musical instruments).

  76. Graeme said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 8:06 am

    Hmm. I've heard plenty of descriptivists dissing the supposed bright line distinction between 'disinterested' and 'uninterested' – a technical distinction that lawyers and pol scientists care to preserve.

    Now we have a descriptivist (or at least a disprescriptivist) arguing for fine distinctions between 'disprefer' and 'not prefer', and by extension 'dislike' and 'don't like'. Good luck with that uphill barrow: I suspect 'disprefer' sounds too unwieldy if not ugly to catch on in general usage. Also, aren't preferences usually understood as rankings: to not prefer something is to put it at the bottom of the list of options. If you want to express clear negativity, full on rejection of something, why not use a more direct pejorative than 'disprefer'?

  77. CEAD said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 8:16 am

    I think I don't understand the nature of the objection to disprefer. If I'm reading this right, the argument against disprefer reduces down to its being an unfamiliar word. I quite like disprefer myself, and I've never found it difficult to understand; but that seems beside the point. What is so wrong with learning a new word? I love learning new words, and I particularly love learning new verbs, because the majority of the new words one encounters are nouns. And once you've learned the new word, it doesn't matter how compositional its meaning is or isn't; it's just a new part of your vocabulary. I just really don't understand why anyone would object to expanding their vocabulary.

  78. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    If CEAD really doesn't "understand why anyone would object to expanding their vocabulary," then I wonder how well he or she can function in a speech community the vast majority of whom are not language buffs of the sort that read LL but people just trying to get through the day, with multiple competing demands on their time and attention and not necessarily in the mood for vocabulary-expansion at just that moment. When not speaking to fellow language buffs, using vocabulary unlikely to be familiar to ones audience without adequate contextual justification (and there's plenty of room for debate about what that might be) is likely not only to impede effective communication but to implicitly convey not very positive social/cultural messages about oneself and ones attitude towards ones audience.

  79. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

    J.W. Brewer: and yet hundreds of new words enter the language every year. How can this be, if there is such widespread antipathy to them?

    Graeme: there seem to be cases where people have no difficulty distinguishing 'disX' and 'not X' – nobody, I think, confuses 'disprove' with 'not prove'. Admittedly there are other cases, as with 'disagree' and 'not agree' where the distinction is less clear-cut, but that, I think. is because there is less of a difference in need of marking anyway – while strictly speaking I do not agree with lots of positions I have never heard of, when I say 'I do not agree' that will almost always mean that I disagree.

  80. MJ said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    It seems to me that it's the Fiskes of the world, those people who see themselves as the caretakers of the language, who are most likely to resist unfamiliar words, not average speakers. It is average speakers, after all, who (along with linguists) are often the target of prescriptivists.

    [(myl) Interestingly, in at least some cases, self-appointed caretakers of the language are quite free with their own invented words. It's just other peoples' innovations that they don't like. See here for an example.]

  81. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    @Andrew (not the same one): A word doesn't need to be accepted by the majority to enter the language. Far from it. And lots of new words are forgotten in a few years—the widespread antipathy may have something to do with that.

    People probably have different reactions to new words, from preference to… dislike. I usually dislike new words and new constructions unless they look better to me than what we had. ("Just as good" won't do it.) Partly it's because they distract me from the information I'm trying to get, and partly it's personal taste. (It isn't an overall feature of my personality, since I enjoy novelty in some other things.)

    Have there been linguistic studies on liking and disliking new words and new constructions?

  82. Stephen Jones said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

    a technical distinction that lawyers and pol scientists care to preserve.

    The distinction in the language is quite clear. 'Disinterested' can mean uninterested or impartial, but 'uninterested' cannot be used in the sense of impartial.

    Prescriptivists however wish to maintain an entirely artificial distinction.

  83. Stephen Jones said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 7:16 pm

    Who knows what lacayo originally meant in Catalan?

    'Lacayo' is Spanish not Catalan. The Catalan is 'lacai', probably derived from the Occitanian 'lecai'. Refers to a valet or footman who follow his master on horseback, on foot or in a carriage.

  84. CEAD said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 8:34 am

    J. W. Brewer: As Andrew (not the same one) says, new words are everywhere. One encounters them with every new technological advance, with every new activity one takes up, every time one travels, or has a discussion with a person from a background different from one's own, or reads a book (or watches a film) dealing with subject matter that is relatively new… and don't forget the hapax forms that crop up every now and again. It's actually rather difficult to go through life without encountering any new words. Any time you encounter something new, you're likely to encounter new words.

    And the majority of people seem to handle this just fine. There may be people with cognitive problems that make acquiring new vocabulary harder, but they're the exceptions. Linguists are not the only people responsible for adding to the vocabulary – far from it! – nor are they the only people able to cope with it. Every day I hear people using words that certainly were not in their vocabularies ten or twenty years ago, and none of them seem to be suffering for it.

    So no: I don't understand the opposition to disprefer. It's a verb, when novel nouns are probably more common, but there are certainly other novel verbs out there. Nor do I understand the problem of adding a new word to one's vocabulary now and then: it happens all the time, people generally seem pretty good at it, and if linguists see the need for a new term for a particular concept, they're as entitled to it as anyone else.

  85. CP said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    What would Bartleby say?!!?!

  86. Picky said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

    @CEAD: Do you not think that behind some of the opposition may be a feeling among some linguists that "disprefer" is their very own technical term, and they don't want the dirty fingerprints of the laity on it?

  87. Ellen K. said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

    Graeme wrote: Also, aren't preferences usually understood as rankings: to not prefer something is to put it at the bottom of the list of options. If you want to express clear negativity, full on rejection of something, why not use a more direct pejorative than 'disprefer'?

    Because sometimes you don't want to express clear negativity. Sometimes somethings on the bottom of the list not because one has any negativity, but simply because one likes it less. Sometimes using "a more direct pejorative" would be inaccurate.

  88. AJD said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

    Picky: That seems extremely improbable. I doubt most linguists have even realized that disprefer is a word not often used by nonlinguists. Paul Kay, in the original post, certainly seems to have been surprised by it, as was I.

  89. language hat said,

    March 19, 2010 @ 8:56 am

    I doubt most linguists have even realized that disprefer is a word not often used by nonlinguists.

    While you may be right, that's a rather damning thing to say about a group who are supposedly keeping track of, you know, language.

  90. Graeme said,

    March 19, 2010 @ 9:16 am

    We have preferential voting in Oz. Americans call it 'instant runoff'. Basically it's the political equivalent of the quotidien experience of ranking available choices: Pepsi, Dr Pepper or Coke? I can't see why jargon like 'I disprefer Coke' adds an iota to 'I don't prefer Coke', if Coke is my least favourite. Whether I'm a cola fan or thirsty cola hater.

    The problem with 'disprefer' in ordinary parlance is it sounds condemnatory, given its closeness to 'disapprove', the most common 'dis' word. When that's not the intention at all.

  91. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    March 19, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    language hat: I don't think linguists as a group are trying to keep track of language as a whole. Individual linguists keep track of particular aspects of language.

    Graeme: I'd agree that much of the time 'not prefer' is a perfectly adequate way of conveying the same sense as 'disprefer' (just as 'not agree' will for most purposes convey the same sense as 'disagree', and 'not like' the same sense as 'dislike'). However, they aren't strictly equivalent; I might neither prefer nor disprefer Coke to Pepsi, but rather be neutral between them. Possibly the purpose for which 'disprefer' is most useful is cancelling implications – 'I don't prefer it – though I don't disprefer it either'.

  92. Ellen said,

    March 19, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    The problem with 'disprefer' in ordinary parlance is it sounds condemnatory, given its closeness to 'disapprove', the most common 'dis' word. When that's not the intention at all.

    Do you have any evidence that that perception of "disprefer" is true for anyone else besides you? After all, I can assert that "disprefer" does not at all sound condemnatory. Which is true, for me. Knowing two people's individual perceptions doesn't tell us anything about how most people perceive the word.

  93. Morriss Partee said,

    March 19, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    I appreciate this post, and by extension the Fiske entry quoted, for helping me to realize (happily) I was born a Linguist's Lackey. Thanks, Language Log!

  94. Haamu said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 5:20 pm


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