The Grammarphobia Blog

Le mot juste

Q: I always write the date when you’ll be on WNYC on my calendar. If I can’t listen to you live, I’ll listen later on my iPod. Now for my question. I’ve been trying to remember the right word (“le mot juste”) to express that one has successfully persuaded another person that his/her opinion is incorrect. I think it is to dis-something of that opinion. Do I make myself clear?

A: Thanks for being such a fan. I think the word you’re looking for is “disabuse,” as in “I won’t disabuse you of the belief that I am a radio celebrity.” It means to free someone from a falsehood or a misapprehension.

You may be surprised to learn that we’ve been disabusing one other of mistaken beliefs for quite a while – nearly 400 years The word first appeared in print in 1611, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an excerpt from The Compleat Angler (1653) in which Izaak Walton defends the simplicity of fishermen: “But if by simplicity you meant to express a general defect in those that profess and practice the excellent Art of Angling, I hope in time to disabuse you, and make the contrary appear so evidently.”

Interestingly, the word “disabuse” has been used occasionally as a noun, though not since 1700. Here’s the noun at work in a 1620 English translation of Don Quixote: “I am aggrieved that this Disabuse hath happened so late unto me.”

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