Etymology Usage

Headline news: to err is human

Q: The Wall Street Journal recently had a rather odd word usage in a headline: “L.A. Police Make Arrests, Begin Disbursing Occupy Camp.” Were the police paying the Occupy protesters?

A: Goof indeed! Any copy editor worth the paycheck should know the difference between “disburse” and “disperse.”

To “disperse” is to scatter, strew about, or distribute widely. To “disburse” is to pay out or expend. Big difference!

But to err is human, especially when the human is writing a headline on deadline. Eventually somebody at the Wall Street Journal caught the mistake.

When the story about the Occupy Los Angeles encampment was updated, the headline was changed to “L.A. Police Disperse Protesters’ Camp.” (Of course, we might quibble even here. It was the protesters that were dispersed, not the camp.)

On a related subject, we wrote a blog item recently about the verb “reimburse,” noting that in the 1500s the defunct term “burse” was another word for “purse.”

Not surprisingly, we can also find a purse in “disburse,” which English adapted from the French desbourser in the 16th century. Both “disburse” and “reimburse” ultimately share the same Greek root, byrsa (leather, hide).

Interestingly, the 1623 first folio version of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors uses the verb “dis-pursed,” though the word is “disbursed” in the 1685 fourth folio.

There’s a “perse” in “disperse” too, but it’s no relation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

English adopted “disperse” in the 16th century from the French disperser (to scatter or break up). The French word was derived in turn from the Latin dispersus, past participle of the verb dispergere (to scatter).

The Latin dispergere, by the way, is made up of the prefix dis- (in different directions) and the verb spargere (to sprinkle or strew), whose past participle sparsus is the source of the English word “sparse.”

We’ll stop now. We don’t want you to think we’re scatterbrained.

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