Is ‘Disinterested’ Now A Worthless Word, And If So, How Would We Know?

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’.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

31 thoughts on “Is ‘Disinterested’ Now A Worthless Word, And If So, How Would We Know?”

  1. “Indifferent” made an earlier transition from “impartial” to “bored.”

  2. Sad to say, yes, it’s a useless word. If young Stanford (right?) scholars don’t even get the usage, might as well hold the funeral right here and now.

  3. You know, language pedants are always telling us that their rules must be followed because in the absence of strict rules — THESE strict rules — communication becomes impossible. Now, faced with a clear example where standing on a particular usage provably interferes with communication, it turns out “communication becomes impossible” isn’t the worst thing after all — the worst thing is to NOT FOLLOW THE RULE, DAMMIT.

    In other words, “Should we be totally democratic with word definitions and always go with the flow?” When it comes to deciding what to say, generally, yes.

  4. It often amuses me when fulsome is misused, because the meaning is closer to the truth than the author intended.

    “Enormity” is well on the way from meaning “a moral crime” to becoming a synonym for “enormousness”.

    You can erase the distinction between “comprise” and “compose” when you pry it from my cold dead hands.

  5. DonBoy, I don’t know what you’re on about. The problem that’s been identified here is that the word means different things to different people. This happens a lot – when my son says “ridiculous” he means something completely different from what I mean when I say “ridiculous” – but most of the time the difference in meaning is fairly clear. But sometimes, as here, it’s not clear and it causes problems.

    And often the loss of meaning is a problem. When my father said that something was “incredible” or “unbelievable” or “fantastic” he didn’t mean it was great, he meant it was a more likely than not untrue. Those meanings are gone now. What word is left to mean that something is not believable and that the speaker is probably either a liar or a fool?

  6. @joel–grammarians have been complaining about the drift of “enormity” since the 1700s. I believe, it’s safe to say that the new meaning is no longer “on the way”, contrary to your suggestion. Similarly, the original complaints about the lack of differentiation between “uninterested” and “disinterested” go back centuries. Yes, fundamentally, there is a difference in origin and it’s nice to have precision of language when you want to express what “disinterested” used to mean. But, ultimately, the poverty of language is individual, not cultural. The problem is not with people “misusing” “disinterested”, but with people not saying what they mean. The two are unrelated.

    I want to second Bloix endorsement of the Language Log as a source on this issue, but I actually want to make that endorsement more general–go to Language Log when you have questions about usage that are not immediately answerable through the usual sources (and I don’t mean the Strunk&White abomination). Chances are LL people had already covered it.

    In particular, it is important to note the “recency fallacy”. Unfortunately, it is all to common for people who consider themselves educated to complain about particular usage without ever bothering to check the history. More often than not, the same complaint may well have been leveled for anywhere between 50 and 500 years and quite possibly the common usage was the reverse of what prescriptive grammarians claim. Nearly every common pet peeve is a consequence of this type of fallacy (meaning reversal and undernegation excluded–e.g., “couldn’t care less” vs. “could care less”).

  7. I’m old fashioned. “Enormity” doesn’t refer to size, but to immorality. And “fulsome” refers to a bad smell. So there.

  8. “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?”

    There are two questions here – whether to abandon old usages that will not be understood, and whether to adopt new usages that you don’t care for. In general, I’d answer “yes” and “no”, respectively.

  9. I would suggest that people are playing definition games with words in order to try and advance their lazy positions. For example the commonly accepted definition of the previous example, biweekly, is every other week. This is the norm in the business world (biweekly paycheck, biweekly publication, etc.) aka the real world. The student was probably well aware of this and chose to feign ignorance in order to play word games. Biweekly could literally mean twice a week. But no one in the real world would accept that definition.

    So it is the same with disinterested. Disinterested parties – in the real world – refer to impartial parties often acting as mediators. This is very difference from indifferent. If your student doesn’t understand this she should stop being butthurt and figure it out real quick. But I suspect this is a ruse and she knows this is the case and is just trying to get some leverage over you. I have no patience or tolerance for this feint ignorance. If she wants to succeed in the real world she better understand the commonly accepted usage of words real fast or she will be in a world of hurt.

  10. What’s annoying about the use of “disinterested” to mean “uninterested” is the lack of effort on the speaker’s part to understand the difference. This word, like many others, is used heedlessly. People just figure it sounds about right so why not say it? I have respect for someone who uses a word differently from how I use it but can make a plausible defense for it. I have less patience for people who abuse the language because they’re just UNinterested in consulting knowledgable sources before using a word.

  11. Also, I think Professor Kleiman’s example of “indifferent” to mean “bored” is not exactly comparable. It is logical to say that if you are bored, you don’t care much one way or the other for something; hence you’re indifferent toward it. “Disinterested” to mean “bored” is just sloppy.

  12. I have a personal rule when it comes to things like this: if there is a good reason for a change in meaning or in scrapping an old meaning of a word, then I’m for it, but otherwise I’m agin’ it, at least until the common usage is strongly on the side of the new meaning.

    So “nauseous” used to be a rough synonym for “nauseating”, and now its meaning is closer to “nauseated”. I’m for it: there’s a shade of distinction between the usages of “nauseous” and “nauseated” which makes it more useful in its new meaning (people tend to use nauseous if they feel sick in their stomach but don’t necessarily know the cause, but nauseated if they are referring to something that has made them feel this way).

    “Inflammable” in its old meaning was pretty much a synonym of “flammable”. I’m deeply annoyed at the sort of pedants who insist on keeping the old meaning of this word alive, as this could literally be a matter of live and death in some circumstances. And OF COURSE people thought it meant the opposite of “flammable”: you could easily reel off a list of words where adding the prefix “in” changes the meaning to the opposite of the original word.

    But I don’t care that no one says “I couldn’t care less” anymore, and instead everyone uses “I could care less” without adding the sarcasm that should make the meaning clear. It will drive me crazy until I’m dead. My only concession to the common usage is to keep my mouth shut and only complain about it anonymously on blogs.

  13. How is it that some people know that others people’s misuse of words does not stem from genuine ignorance, but occurs because they “just figure it sounds about right so why not say it,” or because of “feint ignorance”? I would not accuse someone who wrote “feint ignorance” instead of “feigned ignorance” of feigning his ignorance.

  14. Because ‘disinterested’ has a particularly technical, art historical use that is still widely used and debated, I hardly think we could call it useless.

  15. “Indifferent” made an earlier transition from “impartial” to “bored.”

    Showing my age, in the 17th century liturgy used until the middle of the last century, the Church of England used to pray that the Queen’s judges “truly and indifferently administer justice.” Long before they scrapped the traditional services, they had changed that one word to “impartially” because it no longer made sense to people who weren’t language pedants. They got it; meanings change.

    However, I don’t think “disinterested” has reached that point, because it still means something different from “impartial”. Having “no interest to declare” (disinterested) is a distinct and stronger position from “not showing partiality” (impartial). Vivat.

  16. Henry makes a valid objection, actually. I don’t know why people misuse language. I only have suspicions. The suspicion is that in some cases the speaker thinks he really is using a word correctly – even showing off his education – when really he is being lazy by not making sure.

  17. Anyone involved in research who doesn’t know what the word “disinterested” means is missing a key tool from their professional box. Sort of like a carpenter who doesn’t know the difference between a nail and a screw.

    It is easy to see the cultural roots of this shift in preceived meaning. “Interest” traditionally has referred to personal involvement or benefit. Now “interest” (outside of finace) is perceived to be an emotional state. People in these times talk more about how they feel than almost anything else. That has turned many concepts that used to be concrete to matters of oppinion or intangibles.

  18. I don’t mind old words or phrases changing their meaning as long as it is still easy to convey the old meaning. My problem is that so many of the old meanings had no good substitute. What word would you use now for the old sense of “disinterested”? “No dog in the fight” is a perfect equivalent, but a word is not an idiom, and I often want the word. “No dog in the fight” also does not work in formal English, and the underlying concept is particularly useful in formal contexts: law, politics, journalism etc.

    I still mourn the loss of “gay”. There is no good substitute. “Fulsome”, and “could care less”, not so much.

  19. Ebenezer, I agree that “no dog in the fight” does not work in formal English, but there is another reason not to use it: it has become a cliche. A cliche is a metaphor that has become so overused that people have stopped thinking about its literal meaning. If I think about the literal meaning of “no dog in the fight,” I do not want to use it because I am offended by dog-fighting (I mean commercial dog-fighting, of course, not dogs fighting). Similarly, I will not use the cliche “pass constitutional muster” because I dislike military metaphors.

  20. Bobbyp:
    “Uncaring” is not “disinterested.” A disinterested person could care tremendously–think of a cousin mediating an inheritance dispute among siblings. Or an interested person could care not a whit–maybe one of the siblings will leave the fighting to the others because s/he is completely indifferent to the outcome, even if there is a benefit.

    Touche! (Although we lost “nice” a long time ago.)

  21. I’m curious about the young colleague whose feelings were hurt. After it was explained to her that your meaning was different, because you were using an older and, at least in academic culture, more cultivated sense of the word, was she in turn embarrassed?

  22. If enough people use a word in a certain way, it’s not a misuse. (“Fullsome”, for instance, now has both meanings.)

    And if such usages (or other reasons– see “niggardly”) have made a word less useful for the purpose you want to use it, use a different one. (“Impartial” and “unbiased” work for “disinterested” in the one sense, and “uninterested” works for it in the other sense.)

    This is a non-problem. The only reason it becomes one is because some people were apparently taught by some very dumb English teachers that there is only ONE TRUE WAY to use the language and that anyone who uses a word differently is “wrong”.

  23. My pet peeve is certainly in the lost cause category: careen as in (typically) “the hijacked bus careened several miles through the city pursued by police cars.”
    Originally and properly the word applied to the essential activity (for 17th-century Caribbean pirates) of beaching a wooden-hulled ship and laying it on its side, in order to scrape off the barnacles. I suppose what happened was a repeated typo of careen for career, leading to the WRONG WRONG new usage. My knock-down argument: what word can Captain Jack Sparrow now use when the barnacles really must be dealt with?

  24. He can use “careen” to be historically accurate, or just say he’s going to beach the ship and scrape of the barnacles.

    Here’s how I would put it– I have never seen an instance where any one of these complained-of evolutions in meaning have left people UNABLE to clearly express themselves. There’s almost always at least 15 different ways to express anything anyway.

  25. The problem is not (usually) that there is no alternative to the ‘old’ way that is no longer universally understood. It is in knowing whether one will be understood in using the ‘old’ term. There are alternatives to ‘disinterested’, some better than others, but must one use one or can one still use ‘disinterested’? I think one can no longer use ‘fulsome’ to mean ‘cloyingly excessive’ with confidence in general conversation or writing.

    OTOH it’s pretty clear what people mean when they say they could care less, even if in my eyes they brand themselves as illiterates by doing so.

    My real pet peeve these days is ‘fortuitous’ to mean ‘fortunate’, because I would like to be able to use it in its ‘proper’ sense of occurring by happenstance. It has been a useful word that is now being drained of its usefulness by the sloppy or just hasty usage by people for whom the three syllables of ‘fortunate’ just don’t sound impressive enough, so they pick up the four of ‘fortuitous’ instead.

    I don’t like my tools being blunted, even if I have other tools that can still do the job.

  26. Dilan:

    To be unbiased or impartial is a state of mind; to be disinterested is a state of the world: having no “interest” in the economic or legal sense in the outcome, rather than being objective or fair-minded in making a decision. I really don’t know of a word that Keith could have used to accurately convey his meaning.

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