Q: Is “disruptor” emerging as an alternative spelling for the traditional “disrupter”? Or do the editors at Forbes and Vanity Fair err when they spell it with an “o” instead of an “e”?
A: Dictionaries give “disrupter” as the usual spelling, but some do give “disruptor” as an acceptable variant.
You can find the variant spelling in the Oxford English Dictionary as well as Merriam Webster’s Unabridged, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), and the Collins English Dictionary online.
No matter how you spell it, this is a relatively recent agent noun (agent nouns represent doers—people or things that do something).
It was first recorded in the late 19th century and is defined in the OED as “one who breaks up” or “one who causes disruption.”
Agent nouns, which we’ve written about on our blog, usually end in either “-or” or “-er.” As a general rule, the “-er” nouns come from Germanic sources while those ending in “-or” come from Latin.
But there are many exceptions, and some agent nouns (like “advisor” and “adviser”) come in both forms. Apparently “disrupter”—when it’s spelled like that—is one of the exceptions.
The noun is ultimately derived from the Latin verb disrumpere, which means to break into pieces or burst asunder, as the OED says. And since it comes from Latin, one would expect it to have an “-or” ending in English.
But the noun had strayed far from its Latin roots when it arrived in the 1880s. That may explain why there was apparently some confusion as to its spelling early on.
Here are the two OED citations from that time, and you’ll note that the spellings differ:
1881: “These eminent Disrupters had been passionate advocates for the nationality of the Church.” (From the Saturday Review.)
1886: “They denounced Mr. Gladstone as a betrayer of his country and a disruptor of the Empire.” (From the Pall Mall Gazette.)
We wouldn’t worry too much about the different spellings. The editors at Forbes and Vanity Fair apparently don’t, since you can find many examples of the word spelled both ways in each magazine.