Some words are so commonly misunderstood that they are probably worthless for communication, for example â€œbiweeklyâ€. A recent experience makes me wonder if â€œdisinterestedâ€ has met the same sad fate. A young colleague came to me with a difficult decision about what type of scientific projects to pursue, and I said in the course of the conversation something to the effect that â€œsince your research area is so different than mine I am a completely disinterested adviserâ€. I found out from her later that at the time I had hurt her feelings because she thought I meant that I found her plight pedestrian and dull, such that I could barely keep my eyes open discussing something that meant a great deal to her. What I had meant was that I could listen impartially because what she decided wouldnâ€™t affect my own scientific career, in contrast to many other people to whom she might turn for advice (e.g., her students and lab colleagues).
â€œDisinterestedâ€ was used to mean bored as well as impartial for centuries, and then in the mid-20th century the dominant convention became that â€œdisinterestedâ€ meant â€œnot having a dog this fightâ€ and â€œuninterestedâ€ meant â€œbored stiffâ€. My search of a random sample of uses on the web, including most notably tweets by young people, revealed that my usage is once again out of style, implying that I will be misunderstood if I donâ€™t follow fashion.
Should we be totally democratic with word definitions and always go with the flow? If so, should we do this with spelling, i.e., R U 2 married? In my quest to see how disinterested is used on the web I came upon a recent Slate article by Ben Yagoda that intends to resolve these questions. Yagoda, tongue-at-least-partly-in-cheek, proposes a mathematical formula to assess whether a particular definition of a word should be fought for or abandoned. â€œDisinterestedâ€ to mean impartial gets a middling grade, 75 on a scale of 0-100. The formula spares â€œhoi polloiâ€ from meaning â€œthe fancy peopleâ€ (score 110 for the old definition) but consigns the definition of â€œfulsomeâ€ as â€œoffensively excessiveâ€ to the scrap heap with a score of 40 (a bitter loss). See what you think of his proposal here, and if you are not uninterested, donâ€™t miss his corrections section where he delves into the history of â€œdisinterestedâ€.