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Oh, get over it | COMMENTARY

One of my correspondents is vexed that people use disinterested and uninterested interchangeably.  

It is a familiar refrain from people who prefer disinterested in the sense of “impartial,” “not having a stake in,” and bemoan the loss of this “fine old word” in our age of sloppy usage and faulty education.

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The difficulty, as the relevant entry in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out, is that the original meaning of disinterested was, in fact, “uninterested.” The Oxford English Dictionary has citations going back to the early seventeenth century. And the early citations in the OED for “uninterested” are in the sense of “impartial.”

Dr. Johnson listed both sense of disinterested in 1755, as did Noah Webster in 1828.

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You are welcome to turn to MWDEU for more than a double-columned page of citations, but I’ll give you the summary:

“The alleged confusion between disinterested and uninterested does not exist. Nor has the ethical sense of disinterested been lost—Merriam-Webster files show that it is used more than twice as often as the other senses. 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.”

In short, what we have is not so much an error as an emerging distinction.

Since this instance of polysemy, the capacity of a word to have more than one meaning, leaves open the possibility of ambiguity, all the writer needs to do is to make clear in context which meaning is intended, just as with many other English words.

That, and to stop fretting about how these degenerate times have ruined the language. 

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John E. McIntyre 

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