It's stylish to lament what has been lost

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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, 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.
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.


  1. Peter Corbett said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 7:46 am

    This all seems to be intriguingly analogous to something that goes on in biological evolution, where a gene duplication event creates two genes that start out with the same function – however, one copy keeps its original function, and the other is free to evolve and find a new function, even if it means losing the old one.

    Obviously this analogy is shaky in many places, but I wonder if there are any other good cases of two similar words varying only in affixation (with both affixes meaning more-or-less the same thing) evolving a separation like this.

    (I'm in favour of this process, BTW, even if it does create confusion while it's happening.)

  2. kip said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 8:55 am

    This was not uninteresting reading. I was unaware of the ethical meaning of "disinterested." I'm sure I've encountered it before, but I guess it never made an impression.

  3. Mark P said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 9:01 am

    You can say "uninteresting" but not "disinteresting".

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 9:48 am

    Mark P: You can say "uninteresting" but not "disinteresting".

    Speak for yourself. For disinteresting, the OED has:

    Uninteresting; causing lack of interest.

    1737 WARBURTON Let. to Birch in Boswell Johnson (1887) I. 29 A dull, heavy succession of long quotations of disinteresting passages.
    1800 W. TAYLOR in Monthly Mag. X. 319 The attempt..produces on all the Disciples a similar disinteresting effect.
    18.. The Studio III. 130 (Cent.) He rarely paints a disinteresting subject.

  5. Stephen Jones said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 10:04 am

    Might it be an idea Mark to transfer the comments on the other thread to here, so we don't end up with the discussion spread between two threads.

  6. Brett said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 10:06 am

    After having the supposed distinction between "uninterested" and "disinterested" drummed into me (I attended a high school with a VERY strong tradition of prescriptivism in the English department, something which the younger/better teachers struggled against), I remember being very surprised when I discovered a writer from ca. 1800 using the two words to draw essentially the same distinction, but in opposite fashion. It wasn't a revelation that the "rules" I had learned had little basis in actual usage, but I hadn't expected to see them completely inverted.

  7. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 10:33 am

    Yes. But I continue to use disinterested exclusively in the "ethical sense" and uninterested in the "not interested" sense. Nothing to get too excited about, just a preference.

  8. Mark P said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 10:39 am

    My spell checker didn't like "disinteresting". I find current definitions online, but the latest citation was from 1913. I did find one current use after digging only a little in my Google results (quoted exactly as posted):

    "Off-topic and Fairly Disinteresting, but…
    ..I safely needed to vent this anyweay.

    I have awlays known witch I was going to have to grow up. Im not 1 of those idiots …"

  9. Mark Liberman said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 11:11 am

    Jonathan Mayhew: I continue to use disinterested exclusively in the "ethical sense" and uninterested in the "not interested" sense.

    Me too. But we modernizers should be tolerant of the traditionalists who have not yet adopted our fashionable innovations.

  10. John Cowan said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 11:32 am

    I thought so too, but lo and behold, the OED gives three First Edition citations for disinteresting, and duly defines it as 'uninteresting'.

  11. Polly Glot said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 12:32 pm

    The distinction between these two words is, we now see, new-ish and useful.

    What about the other thing, the outrage shown on both sides? It is as if this were a moral question, that something people had been brought up to believe was important were being brought into question. It happens in nearly every prescriptivist argument, and I think it's a situation that ought to be treatable.

  12. Mark Liberman said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

    Polly Glot: What about the … outrage shown on both sides?

    Put this together with the large numbers of people with very strong feelings — the numbers on the prescriptive side are larger, of course — and we have a fascinating and too-little-studied cultural phenomenon.

    Some previous LL discussion can be found here, here and here; also here.

  13. Polly Glot said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

    Ah, how clever. Thank you. No treatment has worked yet, it seems.

  14. Jeanne Schroeder said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

    As a lawyer, and law professor, I have always understood the two words as legal "terms of art" with well understood different meanings. I guess this is what you and the commentators have called the "ethical" distinction. That is, under rules of judicial ethics, a judge must be disinterested in a case, but cannot no be uninterested..

  15. Polly Glot said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 2:44 pm

    @Jeanne Schroeder: that is only unless you take the older view in which a judge must be completely uninterested in the case, and at the same time not disinterested.

  16. Alexis said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 3:34 pm

    a1612 DONNE 99 Cases, wherein the party is dis-interested.

    I don't see how this provides enough context to show it as an example of use. Or are we supposed to go and consult Mr. Donne's oeuvre to find out the larger context?

    Thank you for this post, though. I was taught to distinguish the two words and, while I expect to continue with that usage, I will stop being concerned by those who lack the distinction.

  17. Mark Liberman said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

    Alexis: I don't see how this [a1612 Donne citation] provides enough context to show it as an example of use. Or are we supposed to go and consult Mr. Donne's oeuvre to find out the larger context?

    I wondered about that example myself. As I noted with respect to uses of infer, it's often difficult to be certain which sense of a word is intended, even when a larger context is given. In this case, we just need to take the Oxford editors' word for it.

    One thing that makes the matter more obscure is that the OED senses don't (as I understand it) distinguish interest in the sense of having a stake in the matter, and interest in the sense of attentive curiosity. So all that is required for this example to be correctly classified is that it be taken to mean "without interest" as opposed to "not influenced by interest". Given that the sense of interested as "curious" apparently didn't come into the language until more than a century later, this 1612 example is almost surely *not* being interpreted as "incurious".

    When I can find the time, I plan to look over some historical examples to try to track the various dimensions of this change a little more carefully.

  18. dr pepper said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 11:33 pm

    Noncanipugnant: not having a dog in the fight.
    Noncarimine: incapable of caring less.

  19. baylink said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 9:15 pm

    I am, now, 43 years old, and imply and infer have never meant anything different within my hearing than the disjoint meanings you describe as 'emergent'.

    I guess English emerges very slowly indeed.

  20. rkillings said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 4:56 am

    The 1612 Donne citation could well be an instance of the past tense of the transitive verb ("now rare"): "to rid or divest of interest or concern". In French, the cognate désintéresser is still currently and commonly used in this sense (a debtor disinterests his creditors by paying them back).
    But the French language also makes one word (désintéressé) do double duty for both disinterested and uninterested, just as it makes one spelling (discret, discrète) cover both "discreet" and "discrete" (which were once interchangeable in English, way back when; but see Barbara Wallraff's column in the Sep08 Atlantic).
    Isn't English the richer for having these differentiated words? Is it peevist to want a distinction for the first pair, but not peevist for the second? Why?

  21. Aaron Davies said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

    @peter, it reminds me of "childlike" and "childish"; also of differentiated repeated borrowings, like "chef" and "chief".

  22. Am I disinterested or uninterested in this debate? « Motivated Grammar said,

    March 21, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

    […] I suppose I've avoided it because the matter has already been excellently discussed by many others, and I didn't think I needed to add my voice to that choir. But now it's become […]

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