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Don’t dis “disinterest”

Q: A recent photo caption in the NY Times reads: “Lizeth Chacon of Aurora, Colo., who signs up Latinos to vote, reports growing disinterest in registration.” I was taught that “disinterest” means impartiality, not lack of interest. Is this meaning now accepted, or are people just forgetting their junior high grammar?

A: The use of the noun “disinterest” in that March 31, 2014, caption in the Times is entirely legitimate. We’ll get to the adjective “disinterested” (the word you were probably taught about) later.

For most of its history, which began in the 1600s, the noun “disinterest” has meant impartiality. But in the late 19th century people began using it to mean indifference or lack of interest, and today standard dictionaries accept that newer sense of the word.

The two dictionaries we use most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)—give two definitions of “disinterest”: lack of interest as well as lack of bias.

Other sources also accept both meanings, including Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and the Collins English Dictionary.

In fact, a couple of dictionaries have dropped the word’s original meaning altogether. The online Macmillan and Cambridge dictionaries, in their British and American editions, define “disinterest” solely as a lack of interest.

In short, “absence of interest” isn’t merely an acceptable definition of “disinterest.” For some authorities it’s the only definition. And remarkably, this shift has taken place in only a little over a hundred years.

Why? Because there’s no other everyday negative noun with “interest” as its root. The nouns “uninterest” and “noninterest” are rare or nonexistent. It was inevitable that a noun we do have—“disinterest”—would fill the gap.

However, the adjectival form “uninterested” does exist, and thereby hangs a tale.

Today, sticklers—who are neither impartial nor indifferent on the subject—insist that “disinterested” means one thing (impartial) and “uninterested” means another (not interested).

But the history of  these adjectives is long and tangled, and they’ve swapped meanings over time. The original meaning of “disinterested” was “not interested,” and the original meaning of “uninterested” was “impartial.”

Long story short: nowadays, standard dictionaries accept two meanings for “disinterested.”

American Heritage says in a usage note that “despite critical disapproval, disinterested has come to be widely used by many educated writers to mean ‘uninterested’ or ‘having lost interest,’ as in Since she discovered skiing, she is disinterested in her schoolwork.”

We discussed the dueling meanings of “disinterested” and “uninterested” in a blog post we wrote way back in 2006, and we wrote about it again in our book Origins of the Specious. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“When it first showed up in print around 1612, ‘disinterested’ meant not interested, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1659, however, another meaning surfaced: impartial. Over the next couple of hundred years, respected writers including Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster merrily used both meanings and nobody seemed to mind.

“It wasn’t till the late nineteenth century that American usage writers decided ‘disinterested’ should mean only one thing: impartial. Why? Because we already had a perfectly good word, ‘uninterested,’ that meant not interested. Our messy language, they figured, would be tidier if the two words had two different meanings. Never mind that ‘uninterested’ had a messy upbringing too. It started out in the seventeenth century meaning impartial, but ended up meaning not interested a century later.

“Forget the inconvenient history. To this day, most usage manuals and style guides will tell you that a juror who falls asleep is ‘uninterested,’ while an impartial judge is ‘disinterested.’ Of course, most of the people who actually speak and write English use ‘disinterested’ both ways. And dictionaries include both meanings, while noting that usage authorities disagree. But, as we all know, in English the majority rules. All those usage experts will eventually come around. In the meantime, what is the conscientious writer to do? You can take a stand, use ‘disinterested’ to mean not interested, and risk being thought an illiterate nincompoop by those who don’t know any better. Or you can take the cowardly way out and use ‘disinterested’ only to mean impartial.”

In conclusion, we say that “it’s better to be understood than to be correct, especially when intelligent people can’t agree on what is correct. If you mean not interested, say ‘not interested.’ If you mean impartial, say ‘impartial’ (or ‘objective,’ ‘unbiased,’ ‘unprejudiced,’ ‘fair,’ ‘nonpartisan,’ ‘judicious,’ ‘incorruptible,’ and so on).”

However, it’s your decision and you may come to a different conclusion—you can go along with the lexicographers, who write dictionaries, or with the authors of usage guides, who are generally more conservative. 

But the fact that the noun “disinterest” has become so readily accepted in its newer role is bound to affect the fortunes of “disinterested.”

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