Some words are so commonly misunderstood that they are probably worthless for communication, for example “biweekly”. A recent experience makes me wonder if “disinterested” 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 “since your research area is so different than mine I am a completely disinterested adviser”. 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 wouldn’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).
“Disinterested” was used to mean bored as well as impartial for centuries, and then in the mid-20th century the dominant convention became that “disinterested” meant “not having a dog this fight” and “uninterested” meant “bored stiff”. 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 don’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. “Disinterested” to mean impartial gets a middling grade, 75 on a scale of 0-100. The formula spares “hoi polloi” from meaning “the fancy people” (score 110 for the old definition) but consigns the definition of “fulsome” as “offensively excessive” 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, don’t miss his corrections section where he delves into the history of “disinterested”.