English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Should we dis “disassociate”?

Q: “Dissociate” or “disassociate”? The New Yorker used the latter, and I think it stinks. But what do I know?

A: A search of the New Yorker’s archive finds that writers for the magazine have used each word, with a slight preference for the shorter version.

Is one correct? Well, these verbs mean the same thing and are considered variants of one another, but some usage guides say “dissociate” is better.

For example, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) says “disassociate” is “a common but now widely condemned variant (first recorded in 1603), of dissociate.”

Another guide, Garners Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), calls “dissociate” the “preferred term” and labels “disassociate” a “needless variant.”

Though Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) doesn’t condemn “disassociate,” the dictionary defines it in terms of the other verb: “to detach from association” or “dissociate.”

And “dissociate,” M-W says, means “to separate from association or union with another,” as in “attempts to dissociate herself from her past.”

As mentioned above, “disassociate” was first recorded in writing in 1603. The now favored variant, “dissociate,” followed soon afterward.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the verb “dissociate” appeared in 1623 in a dictionary that defined it as meaning “to separate.” So it must have been in use for some time before that.

An adjectival form (“dissociate”) was recorded in 1548; another adjective (“dissociated”) and a noun (“dissociation”) were both recorded in 1611.

Regardless of the chronology, the two verbs are defined similarly in the OED.

“Dissociate,” Oxford says, means “to cut off from association or society; to sever, disunite, sunder.” And “disassociate” means “to free or detach from association; to dissociate, sever.”

Ultimately, the Latin root of both is sociare (to join together or associate), and both have the negative Latin prefix dis-.

As the OED says, “dissociate” is from the Latin dissociare (to separate from fellowship). “Disassociate” was modeled after the 16th-century French verb désassocier.

Since both verbs have been in use for some 500 years, we can’t see why one is preferred over the other. But perhaps people feel shorter is better, and we often feel that way ourselves. “Dissociate” does save a syllable.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has an opinion here, as it does on most things:

Dissociate and disassociate share the sense ‘to separate from association or union with another,’ and either word may be used in that sense. Dissociate is recommended by a number of commentators on the ground that it is shorter, which it is by a grand total of two letters—not the firmest ground for decision.”

M-W’s conclusion: “Both words are in current good use, but dissociate is used more often. That may be grounds for your decision.”

PS: In case you’re wondering about the verb “dis” in the title of this post, we had an item on the blog some time ago about the usage.

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