The Grammarphobia Blog

“Disinterested” vs. “uninterested”

Q: What is the current status of “disinterested”? MSN’s online dictionary, Encarta, defines disinterested as both “impartial” and “not interested.” Is the second definition now acceptable? The incorrect use of “disinterested” is a long-time pet peeve of mine, but maybe I require an attitude adjustment.

A: This whole issue is a tangled mess. “Disinterested” once meant “not interested,” back in the 17th century. This sense became outmoded in the 18th century, when “disinterested” was taken to mean “impartial” or “objective.” That was a handy thing, because then we had a distinction between “disinterested” and “uninterested” (not interested). But in the 20th century, people again started using “disinterested” to mean “not interested” and the tendency shows no indication of disappearing.

The fact is that many educated people—probably most—still cling to the old distinction. The latest dictionaries point out the difference of opinion, the tangled history, and tend to endorse both meanings of “disinterested,” with No.1 being “impartial” and No. 2 being “uninterested.”

What all this means to me is that the word “disinterested” has become useless, since two reasonable people can mean different things by it. Too bad.