The Negative Canon: Disinterested

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

In ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’, Harry Blamires confidently writes:

The word disinterested is more often used incorrectly than correctly. It does not mean uninterested . . . To be disinterested in any matter is to be in no position either to benefit or be disadvantaged by whatever transpires. Disinterest is impartiality.

R LTrask takes a similar line in ‘Mind The Gaffe’:

. . . standard English makes a clear distinction. To be uninterested is to be apathetic, to have no trace of enthusiasm, while to be disinterested is to have nothing to gain or lose from any outcome.

However, the OED’s first definition of disinterested is ‘Without interest or concern; not interested, unconcerned.’ It notes that it is ‘often regarded as a loose use’, but there are citations showing this use from John Donne in around 1631 the ‘Daily Telegraph’ in 1970. The definition which Blamires and Trask seek to defend comes only second historically:

Not influenced by interest; impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced; now always, Unbiased by personal interest; free from self-seeking. (Of persons, or their dispositions, actions, etc.)

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ confirms this historical order of use in the final sentence of this extract:

Disinterested carries the bulk of use for all meanings; uninterested is much less frequently used. In current use, disinterested has three meanings: an ethical one, “free from selfish motive or bias”; a simple negative one, “not interested”; and a slightly more emphatic one, “having lost interest”. Of these the simple negative is the oldest, the ethical one next, and “having lost interest” the most recent.

Oxford Dictionaries Online gives ‘not influenced by considerations of personal advantage’ as its first definition and ‘having or feeling no interest in something; uninterested’ as its second. A usage note reads:

Nowhere are the battle lines more deeply drawn in usage questions than over the difference between disinterested and uninterested. According to traditional guidelines, disinterested should never be used to mean ‘not interested’ (i.e. it is not a synonym for uninterested) but only to mean ‘impartial’ . . . Ironically, the earliest recorded sense of disinterested is for the disputed sense. Today the ‘incorrect’ use of disinterested is widespread: around a quarter of citations in the Oxford English corpus are for this sense.

Pam Peters, writing in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, admits that:

. . . with all the controversy, it may be better to seek a synonym for [disinterested] if you aim to communicate clearly and directly.

That is undoubtedly good advice, and for those simply seeking pragmatic guidance on usage no more need really be said. But for those of us who like to dig a little deeper, her preceding words deserve attention:

Given that disinterested carries several meanings, we effectively rely on the context to show which is intended – as is true of many words.

Indeed it is, and it is context that the language mavens so often seem to ignore. They also generally prefer earlier meanings of a word over later ones (see decimate). The fact that they do not do so in this case illustrates the arbitrary nature of their choices. That in turn suggests that their predilections are social as much as linguistic.

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One response to “The Negative Canon: Disinterested

  1. Pingback: I’m Going To Report You | Caxton

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