The Grammarphobia Blog

An indisputable choice?

Q: “Undisputed” or “indisputed”? Is there a clear winner? My sense is “undisputed” means neither party disputed the facts, which is the sense I’m seeking, while “indisputed” means not capable of dispute. Can you help?

A: If your choice is between “indisputed” and “undisputed,” there is no choice. The adjective “indisputed” is now considered archaic or obsolete. However, “indisputable” is a possibility. In choosing between “undisputed” and “indisputable,” the word you want is “undisputed.” Here’s the story.

We’ve checked ten standard dictionaries and none regard “indisputed” as standard English. In fact, only two even mention it. Merriam-Webster Online and the subcription-based Merriam-Webster Unabridged both describe “indisputed” as an “archaic” synonym for “undisputed.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says “indisputed” is an “obsolete” adjective meaning “not disputed; undisputed, unquestioned.”

“Indisputable,” the oldest of the three adjectives, showed up in the mid-16th century, the OED says, and describes something “that cannot be disputed” or is “unquestionable.” It’s derived from the medieval Latin indisputābilis, combining the negative prefix in- and the classical disputābilis (disputable).

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Ralph Robinson’s 1551 translation of Utopia (1516), a Latin political satire by Thomas More: “[That] whiche with good and iust Judges is of greater force than all lawes be, the kynges indisputable prerogatiue.”

“Undisputed,” which showed up a couple of decades later, originally meant “not disputed or argued with,” according to the OED, but now generally means “not disputed or called in question.” Standard dictionaries agree.

The first OED citation for “undisputed” is from a 1570 edition of Actes & Monumentes, an ecclesiastical history by John Foxe: “So in the end the bishop making to our Ambassadours good countenaunce … dismissed them vndisputed wythall.” The reference is to a clerical appointment made without opposition.

Etymologically, “undisputed” ultimately comes from disputāre, which meant to compute, investigate, or discuss in classical Latin, but took on the sense of to dispute or contend in colloquial Latin.

“Indisputed,” which appeared in the 17th century, meant not disputed. The first OED citation is from Religio Medici (1643), a wide-ranging memoir by the English polymath Thomas Browne:

Natura nihil aget frustra, is the only indisputed Axiome in Philosophy.” The Latin axiom means “Nature does nothing in vain.”

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