Q: I graduated from Bennington College in the late ’60s. My wonderful European history teacher insisted that “disenfranchise” was incorrect, and that “disfranchise” must be used instead. I’ve always done so, not that I often have occasion to. (He also wore a red shirt each year on Garibaldi’s birthday.)
A: “Disfranchise” and “disenfranchise” are synonymous, and both are legitimate verbs (no disrespect to your teacher is intended!).
Let’s start with the original, “franchise,” a verb that once meant to set free or liberate.
It entered English around 1393, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it existed in Anglo-Norman in the early 1100s and had its origins in the old franc (“free”).
The original sense of the verb is now rare. The most recent published usage cited in the OED is from “Renaissance,” a poem by Thomas Sturge Moore (1931):
“Do thou forget / All that, until this joy franchised thee, / Tainted thee, stained thee, or disguised thee.”
In its usual modern sense, the verb means to grant a commercial franchise. The usage, dating from 1940, originated in the United States, according to the OED.
As for the noun “franchise,” it originally meant “freedom, immunity, privilege.”
The noun entered English about 1300, and was also recorded in Anglo-Norman in the mid-1100s. Early senses of the word included “a special privilege or right to own property, earn income, trade, etc.,” the OED says.
The modern commercial sense, which originated in the US and dates from 1903, is an authorization to do business in a particular area for a stated period in return for a share of the profits. The term also applies to the business or the territory.
But back to verbs!
“Enfranchise” was first recorded in the early 1500s and meant either “to admit to freedom, set free (a slave or serf),” or “to admit to municipal or political privileges.”
The earliest use in writing, the OED says, is from an act of Henry VIII in 1514: “The crafte and misterye of Surgeons enfraunchesid in the Citie of London.”
Today, to “enfranchise” is to grant the privileges of citizenship, especially the right to vote.
And to “disenfranchise” – or to “disfranchise” – is to remove those privileges. Both are bona fide verbs, though the shorter version came first. The OED dates “disfranchise” from 1467 and “disenfranchise” from 1664.
Standard dictionaries leave the choice to us. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines “disfranchise” by merely cross-referencing it to “disenfranchise,” which gets a full entry.
On the other hand, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines “disenfranchise” as “to disfranchise,” and the latter entry gets the full treatment.
But the longer version may be more popular today. The words “disenfranchise,” “disenfranchised,” and “disenfranchisement” far outnumber the “en”-less versions in Google hits.
I think the reason is obvious. Someone who has the right to vote is “enfranchised,” not “franchised.” So the opposite form “disenfranchised” seems more natural and symmetrical.
By the way, if you dis the verb “disrespect” or its short form “dis,” check out this blog item we wrote a few years ago.