The Grammarphobia Blog

Disorganized crime

Q: I am having a hard time finding the real difference between “disorganized” and “unorganized,” but I know you can make this clear to me.

A: We can see why you’re confused. There’s a lot of overlap between the terms “disorganized” and “unorganized.” They’re often defined in terms of one another.

In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for instance, one definition of “disorganized” is “not organized,” while one definition of “unorganized” is “disorganized.”

But there are differences, too. And as far as the differences go, something that’s disorganized is usually worse off than something that’s simply unorganized.

A committee that’s “unorganized” could be one that hasn’t yet been formed, while a committee that’s “disorganized” is in disarray.

The definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary mention the chaos that can characterize the “disorganized” state.

The OED defines “disorganized” as “deprived or destitute of organization; having lost, or being without, organic connection or systematic arrangement; thrown into confusion, disordered.”

But the OED entry for “unorganized” doesn’t entail confusion and disorder. It defines the term this way: “Not formed into an orderly or regulated whole.”

The dictionary adds that “unorganized” can also refer to workers or to companies that aren’t unionized.

Interestingly, the terms “disorganized” and “unorganized,” as well as the verb “organize,” are ultimately derived from organon, a Greek term for a tool, a musical instrument, and a body part, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The Greek organon has given English the words for a pipe organ as well as a body organ.

When the noun “organ” showed up in early Old English, the OED says, it referred to “any of various ancient musical, esp. wind, instruments.”

By the late 1300s, the term was being used for a pipe organ. And in the early 1400s, it took on the sense of a body organ.

When the verb “organize” entered English in the 1400s, according to the OED, it was a medical and biological term.

As John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explains, “This originally denoted literally ‘furnish with organ so as to form into a living being,’ and hence ‘provide with a co-ordinated structure.’ ”

The verb didn’t take on its modern meaning (“to become organized; to assume an organized structure”) until the late 1800s, according to the OED.

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