English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Disparate, or merely different?

Q: Some readers may enjoy your take on the difference between “different” and “disparate.” This sentence from a recent New York Times does not sit well with me: “Two similarly titled papers with markedly disparate conclusions illustrate the range of disagreement on this subject.”

A: We think the use of “disparate” can be justified in that Oct. 20, 2021, opinion column by Thomas B. Edsall.

He discusses two scholarly papers that concluded for “markedly disparate” reasons that conservatives were on the whole happier than liberals. (As Edsall writer later, that’s questionable.)

“Disparate” is generally a much stronger word than “different.” Traditionally, it means that there are no common grounds for comparison. And that seems to be true of the two papers’ explanations for the so-called happiness gap between conservatives and liberals.

We won’t attempt to summarize the explanations, since this isn’t a blog about politics or sociology; we’ll simply say that they don’t lend themselves to comparison. Their reasons aren’t merely “different” in the simplest sense of that word (like apples and oranges, which are both fruits). And they aren’t opposites, since things that are opposite are correlated—that is, they have a relationship.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that in logic “disparate” applies to “things or concepts having no obvious common ground or genus in which they are correlated.”

The dictionary adds that “disparate” is “distinguished from contrary, since contrary things are at least correlated in pairs, e.g. good and bad.” And it’s “also distinguished from disjunct, since disjunct concepts may all be reduced to a common kind.”

The OED is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, and its entry for “disparate” may be outdated (it has no examples later than 1883). Nevertheless, its principal definition—“essentially different or diverse in kind”— largely agrees with those in most current standard dictionaries. Here’s a representative sampling, from two British and two American sources:

Lexico: “Essentially different in kind; not allowing comparison … Containing elements very different from one another.”

Collins: “Disparate things are clearly different from each other in quality or type … A disparate thing is made up of very different elements.”

American Heritage: “Fundamentally distinct or different in kind; entirely dissimilar … Containing or composed of dissimilar or opposing elements.”

Merriam-Webster: “markedly distinct in quality or character … containing or made up of fundamentally different and often incongruous elements.”

M-W adds in a synonym note that “different may imply little more than separateness but it may also imply contrast or contrariness,” as in “different foods.” But “disparate emphasizes incongruity or incompatibility,” as in “disparate notions of freedom.”

As for the etymology, the OED says that “disparate” came into English in the early 17th century from the Latin disparatus (“separated, divided”), past participle of the verb disparare (“to separate, divide”). The Latin verb was formed from the prefix dis- (in the sense of “in twain, in different directions, apart”) and the verb parare (“to make ready, prepare, provide, contrive, etc.”).

In English use, the dictionary adds, “disparate” is “apparently often associated with Latin dispar unequal, unlike, different.” However, only one of the ten standard dictionaries we consult, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.), includes “unequal” among its definitions. That sense of “disparate” seems to be found mostly in legal language, as in “disparate treatment,” a phrase often used in discrimination cases.

The OED’s earliest example of the adjective in written English is from a sermon delivered on Nov. 5, 1608, by John King, Bishop of London: “Two disperate species and sorts of men.”

And this is the latest citation: “The questions are so utterly disparate as not to be reducible to the same argument” (Frederic Harrison, writing in The Pall Mall Gazette, Nov. 3, 1883).

A noun form, used chiefly in the plural, was recorded a couple of decades earlier than the adjective. The OED defines “disparates” as “disparate things, words, or concepts; things so unlike that they cannot be compared with each other.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from Timothy Bright’s A Treatise of Melancholie (1586): “Contrary faculties, or such as we call disparates in logicke.”

Like “disparate,” the much older adjective “different” has its roots in Latin. And as we’ll explain, it’s often used today in ways that overlap “disparate.”

It can be traced ultimately to the classical Latin verb differre (to differ), derived from ferre (to bear or carry) plus dif-, a prefix used instead of dis- before a verb beginning with “f.”

To the Romans, the OED says, differre had many meanings: “to carry away in different directions, to scatter, disperse, to separate, to bewilder, distract, to spread abroad, publish, to postpone, defer, to keep (someone) waiting,” as well as “to be different, to disagree.”

The earliest sense of “different” that’s still used in modern English, according to the dictionary, is “unlike in nature, form, or quality; not of the same kind; dissimilar,” a sense not unlike “disparate.” This use of “different” was first recorded in the late 14th century and is still quite common now.

Two other uses of “different” are also current today: (1) “distinct; separate; other” (mid-16th century), used in reference to “two or more separate people or things of the same type, rather than two or more things which differ in nature, form, or quality”; and (2) “out of the ordinary, unusual; other than is expected; novel” (mid-19th century).

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