Q: While playing oboe for a D’Oyly Carte tour, I heard that Little Buttercup may really mean “disassembled” when she tells the Boatswain in Pinafore that she has “dissembled.” Have you ever come across this alternate definition?
A: Does Little Buttercup use “dissembled” to mean “disassembled” in H.M.S. Pinafore after the Boatswain describes her as “the rosiest, the roundest, and the reddest beauty in all Spithead”?
Red, am I? and round—and rosy! Maybe, for I have dissembled well! But hark ye, my merry friend—hast ever thought that beneath a gay and frivolous exterior there may lurk a canker-worm which is slowly but surely eating its way into one’s very heart?
One could perhaps make a case that Buttercup is using “dissembled” here to mean “disassembled,” but we wouldn’t make it.
Although the verb “dissemble” did indeed once mean “disassemble,” the Oxford English Dictionary has only one example for the usage—from the late 1500s or early 1600s.
And in our searches of literary databases, we couldn’t find any examples for the usage from the late 19th century, when W. S. Gilbert wrote the words and Arthur Sullivan the music for the comic opera.
It seems perfectly clear to us that Little Buttercup has indeed “dissembled” in the usual way—she’s disguised her true feelings by putting a happy face on the remorse eating at her heart.
And in a duet with the Captain, she uses that sense of “dissemble” several times, as in this example: “Though to catch my drift he’s striving, / I’ll dissemble—I’ll dissemble.”
Interestingly, the verb “disassemble” was rarely seen before the 20th century, and Gilbert may not have been aware of it when he wrote the libretto for the opera, which opened in London in 1878.
Standard dictionaries didn’t have entries for “disassemble” until well into the 20th century, and the earliest modern citation for it in the OED is from the 1920s, though we’ve found some 19th-century examples in our searches.
Now, let’s assemble the history of these words.
The first to show up in English, “dissemble,” is an alteration of the earlier (and now obsolete) verb “dissimule,” which was borrowed from the Old French dissimuler (to hide one’s intentions) in the 14th century, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.
The ultimate source is the Latin dissimulāre (to disguise or conceal). The Latin verb combines dis- (completely) with simulāre (to pretend), Chambers adds.
(Dissimulāre is also the source of “dissimulate,” to conceal one’s feelings, and “dissimulation.”)
Why did “dissimule” morph into “dissemble”? The OED suggests that the transformation was “influenced perhaps by resemble.”
The first citation for the “dissemble” spelling in the OED is from Thomas More’s History of King Richard III (1513-18):
“Some … not able to dissemble theyr sorow, were faine at his backe to turne their face to the wall.” More’s history was the main source for Shakespeare’s Richard III, according to scholars.
Oxford defines “dissemble” as to “alter or disguise the semblance of (one’s character, a feeling, design, or action) so as to conceal, or deceive as to, its real nature; to give a false or feigned semblance to; to cloak or disguise by a feigned appearance.”
As for the old use of “dissemble” to mean “disassemble,” the OED describes it as rare and obsolete. It defines this sense as to “separate, disperse: = disassemble,” and traces the usage to the Old French dessembler (to separate).
The only Oxford citation for this sense of “dissemble” is from a memoir by Sir Jerome Horsey, a British diplomat, about his travels in Russia during the late 1500s:
“The chieff bishops … assembled and disembled often tymes together, much perplexed and devided.” The dictionary says the citation was written sometime before 1626, and appears in a version of the memoir edited by E. A. Bond in 1856.
As to “disassemble,” Oxford has an obsolete sense from the early 1600s, but the first example for the word in its usual modern sense (“to take to pieces, to take apart”) is from a 1922 collection of short stories:
“This generating plant was partly disassembled.” The OED doesn’t cite the author or publisher of the story.
However, we’ve found several 19th-century examples for “disassemble,” including this one from an 1893 report to Congress by the Secretary of the Navy:
“The breech mechanism was disassembled and thoroughly examined immediately after this firing and found to be cool and comparatively clean, what little dirt there was having come from the leaky primer test.”
The usage must have been uncommon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, since we didn’t find entries for “disassemble” in An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), The Century Dictionary (1889-91), or Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913).
However, the verb “assemble,” the opposite of “disassemble,” has been around since the Middle Ages. The earliest example in the OED is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297):
“And amorwe hem lete asemly wyþ mylde herte ynou” (“And in the morning let them assemble with enough mercy in their hearts”). Oxford notes that the Middle English “asemly” was misprinted as “asely” in the manuscript.