A Plague on Words: Decimate, Disinterested, and Uninterested

A couple weeks ago, Ben Yagoda at Slate offered several examples of words and phrases whose original meanings seem to be fighting a losing battle against their incorrect contemporary meanings.  Some of the more surprising examples include “fortuitous” (it actually means “unplanned,” not “fortunate”), “presently” (meaning “shortly,” not “at present”), and “verbal” (meaning “in words,” not just “oral” or “spoken”).  While I appreciate that language is conventional to a certain extent, it’s hard not to be stubborn about the meaning of words.  That’s what it means to “mean” something, doesn’t it?  That, whatever it means, it will mean it predictably and reliably each and every time.

There are two particular examples on Mr. Yagoda’s list that are especially interesting: the traditional and new meanings of “decimate,” and the distinction between “distinterested” and “uninterested.”

Traditionally, “decimate” meant “to kill one-tenth of.”  In fact, a rudimentary examination of the word itself—“decem-” or “deci-” means “a tenth”—readily reveals its meaning.  (“Mate” or “mater” appears to mean “to kill,” but my googling couldn’t confirm this.)  However, I also agree that, outside of ancient Roman military practices, there is no utility in setting aside an entire word to mean “to kill one tenth of.”  This world has its problems, but thankfully we’re rid of that particular one.  Also, it’s just a good word that feels like it ought to be a synonym of “obliterate” or “annihilate.”  So there’s a very compelling argument that “decimate” ought to be recommissioned.

The problem with recommissioning “decimate,” however, is the well-entrenched meaning of its components.  “Deci” or “decem” is well understood to mean “a tenth,” and thus it becomes misleading and a quite a bit arbitrary to insist that what usually means “a tenth” in this case means “all.”  One might argue, then, that if you’re satisfied with changing the meaning of “decimate” from “killing one-tenth” to “killing all” or “complete destruction,” then perhaps you have no non-arbitrary basis to not accept that “I could care less” actually means “I could not care less,” or that “for all intensive purposes” can suitably replace “for all intents and purposes.”  Since these phrases are just terms of art, why shouldn’t we just accept that their constituent parts have no fixed meaning that we are bound to respect, and that we thus must yield to whatever it feels like these words and phrases should mean?

The second troubling example in Mr. Yagoda’s article was the revelation that the practice of conflating the meaning of “disinterested” and “uninterested” threatens to subject “disinterested” to the same result as “decimate.”   That only 15% of Google News results correctly use “disinterested” is perhaps the most shocking finding of Mr. Yagoda’s article.  (That only 5% correctly use “beg the question” is not as shocking as it is depressing.)

After some digging, however, I am forced to concede that the traditional meanings of “disinterested” and “uninterested,” as based on their prefixes “dis-” and “un-” are purely conventional.  I scanned through my desktop dictionary app for words beginning with “dis” and “un” and, while there are some trends, none of them obviously suggests that “disinterested” must mean “not selfishly interested” and that “uninterested” must mean “not interested, selfishly or otherwise.”

For example, the following use of the prefixes “dis-” and “un-” indicate a difference between “no longer having” the quality or status and simply “not having” the quality or status more generically:

  • disaffiliate (to cease to have an affiliation) vs. unaffiliated (not affiliated)
  • disassemble (to take apart) vs. unassembled (not assembled)
  • disarm (to remove offensive arms from) vs. unarmed (not having offensive arms)
  • disambiguate (to remove ambiguity from) vs. unambiguous (not having ambiguity)
  • disqualify (to remove from qualified status) vs. unqualified (not qualified)

However, we then come to some harder cases.  For example:

  • disproven vs. unproven.  There still seems to be a distinction here, though “disproven” does not necessarily suggest that the thing was ever proven.  Like the above examples, however, “disproven” does suggest an affirmative act—i.e., “to prove false.”
  • disapprove vs. unapproved.  Now the difference is harder to readily identify.  Both these words seem to mean the same thing.  Unlike the other examples above, “disapprove” does not carry a suggestion that the thing was once approved but that it is now stripped of that status.  While one can still draw a distinction that the former is affirmative and the latter is passive, the distinction is subtle.
  • disbelief vs. unbelief; and disfavor vs. unfavorable.  Same thing here.

The following more clearly suggest that while “un-” indicates the logical opposite—literally, “not”—the prefix “dis-” suggests the actual opposite:

  • dissatisfied (unhappy, as in “a dissatisfied customer”) vs. unsatisfied (not having been satisfied)
  • displeasing (to cause annoyance or unhappiness) vs. unpleasing (lacking pleasing or gracious qualities)
  • disorganized (messy) vs. unorganized (not having order)

Finally, there are some examples that are simply outliers:

  • disaffected (discontented as to authority) vs. unaffected (unmoved or indifferent)
  • undo (to cancel)
  • unestablished vs. disestablish – note how the different is not between the prefixes, but the underlying root word.  This is also why we have trouble with biannual:  does the prefix “bi” modify the noun “annum” (to mean “two year”) or the adjective “annual” (to mean “two yearly”)?  Then again, does “bi” mean “two” or “twice”—is the literal reading “two year” or “twice yearly”?

The difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested” does not seem to resemble any of the other dis-/un- words above.  Thus, convention seems to be our only touchstone to determine their meaning. As Mr. Yagoda acknowledges, however, we still have need of a word that means what “disinterested” does, so if for no other reason, the distinction should still be respected.  Sneer away, then, when someone uses it incorrectly.

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at gmail.com.


  1. Funny you should post this, just as I was correcting “free rein” in my own post.

    First of all, I don’t think I want to live in a world in which “for all intensive purposes” is considered acceptable. And let’s all bow our heads for our poor, dying friend “beg the question.”

    The only question that the prescriptivist in me cares to ask about any given word is “Is this the only word that will accurately, discretely communicate a particular concept?” While the technical answer for “decimate” is “yes,” the concept communicated is so useless that preserving the original meaning has no value. However, as you note, we need “disinterested.”

    Years ago, I was watching a news director or some such talking about the language they tried to avoid on their program, since their research had indicated the viewers tended to switch off if they couldn’t follow the conversation. The two words I remember her saying they avoided were “socialism” and “geopolitical.” My companion at the time was then forced to listen to me rant about our national decline, given that a news program had to avoid those words for fear of losing viewers’ attention, given that neither word is all that obscure and that no word can easily convey the same meaning.

    • I always have to think hard about “rein” and “reign.”

      Your measure is a good one, and this is a major component of Mr. Yagoda’s algorithm. Though I still tend to get a bit defiant when we change the meaning of words for any reason.

      I have trouble understanding how this country went from being thoroughly engaged in the thoughtful, complex, three-hours-long Lincoln/Douglas debates in 1858 to being intellectually overburdened at the mention of words like “geopolitical” in a three-minute-long news clip. No, I will not willingly hand over “beg the question” to such people.

      • I have trouble understanding how this country went from being thoroughly engaged in the thoughtful, complex, three-hours-long Lincoln/Douglas debates in 1858 to being intellectually overburdened at the mention of words like “geopolitical” in a three-minute-long news clip.

        It’s hard to know how thoroughly engaged the country was in the minutiae of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Sure, most Americans probably knew the talking points of the different positions: should slavery expand into the territories or should it be contained? is popular sovereignty a good way to determine whether a third person have a right to object when one person tries to enslave another?

        But how closely did most Americans read the debates? It is clear that most major newspapers published them, but it’s just hard to know reception or understanding.

        Now, to get to your (and Mr. Saunders’s) point about “geopolitical”: it can be a clumsy buzzword if not used properly.

      • Think: reindeer. In the Santa context, deer with reins. That’s the quickest way for me to remember.

        Not that I always get it right. My trouble is when I don’t think about it at all. I have a bad history with words that are even vaguely similar in sound even if they are entirely unrelated (wrote instead of goat, for instance).

    • And I have to say–thank you for taking a moment to get “free rein” correct. Because, as you may have seen, I have something of a bug up my butt over that particular aphorism.

    • As far as “socialism” is concerned, its meaning has become so diffuse and so contested and argued over, it’s a hard word to use with any precision. Is that a bad thing? Maybe, but unless we can agree on a meaning, or at least heavily qualify it (i.e., explain what we mean) when we use it, then I can understand a newscaster not wanting to use it.

    • “I was correcting “free rein” in my own post.”

      And for this you have my eternal gratitude, whatever other torpedoes we might fling at each other.

  2. Ad hominem is another one that’s almost never used correctly. It’s come to mean simply “insult” rather than the logical fallacy of judging a proposition by its proponents.

  3. The language that we so freely give little respect to now days is not that of a discriminating manner, but yet our own that we choose to so freely change as needed to suit those of society. We as a nation change words in order to “dum” them down for the next generation. We throw slang around as if it makes our lives easier when it only makes us sound more ignorant each and every day. We have little respect for the words of our language or for that matter respect of ourselves as people whom should be proud to be in a manner more dignified and less dumb founded by our own words. We choose to change simple words into what we like to refer as “slang” so we may make typing seem more simplified. Why spell a word correctly when we can simply save time by removing one letter. Have we as people become so engrossed in the way of fast technology that we cannot take an extra second to place a simple letter into a word and spell it correctly. Are we so ignorant to our own ignorance that we would choose to say phrases that would make the For Fathers have shivers down their spines for our plan lack of respect for our own language ? Have we forgotten that without the mere exist of language that we would be without all the technology that we use so freely? Why then do we allow ourselves to cast ourselves down the path of stupidity with slang and misspelled words that we worked so hard for? Do you not think it rather odd that we spend years of our lives to become educated only to log onto a computer or text on a phone and thrown all the education we worked so hard for down the drain? I ask you one last question, does it make you feel smarter to join the crowd of those that choose to change our language into rubbish so that we may feel sorry for those that choose not to educate themselves in the proper English language? Maybe in the so called “end times” we not only will see an end to civilization but the end of English as it is, was, and should be.

    • your understanding of slang and mine are different, I suspect. Then again, Cockney rhymes count as slang in my book — and they’re oft twice as long as the words they replace.

      The proper english language is a muddled jumbled mess, quite apt to amalgamize more words from other cultures. But really, did you really object so much to hari kiri? How about portmanteaus? And let’s not forget euphemisms…

  4. Much of what you are writing about is an outgrowth of the fact that people do not listen to one another, and instead mentally fill in to their comprehension what they think another person says instead of what they are actually saying. Tricks of the spoke language compound that problem: substituting “all intensive purposes” for “for all intents and purposes” is laziness in listening, not a substitute of one equivalent phrase for another. So is “I could care less” for “I could not care less,” and that is at a more advanced state of deterioration. Then, when one person mis-hears the phrase and uses the mis-heard phrase in conversation with someone else, the problem compounds.

    A lawyer I knew who insisted that there were such things as “shelf corporations,” which a lawyer would create and have in an inventory to sell to her clients, but did not understand the concept of a “shell corporation” as a means of sheltering individuals from liability for business activities.

    Dr. Saunders’ encounter with “free rein” versus “free reign” is a mistake I have fallen into myself, and IIRC, you’ve pointed out that “coming down the pike” is often mistaken for “coming down the pipe,” which could very well be a more accurate neologism than the original given modern parlance. And a beloved writer here in these very pages habitually uses the phrase “atall” which when I first saw it, I thought was a charming verbalism for a phrase meaning “with no exceptions” until I noticed that he uses it consistently, making me wonder whether this is a lacuna in his typically fluid composition.

    A layperson, unfamiliar with legal parlance, can be forgiven for not getting the technical language right, but I still have to work to suppress a sneer when a colleague at the courthouse refers to an initial motion to dismiss a lawsuit on the face of its pleadings as a “demure.” I’m sure he would defend himself on the pronunciation if challenged, but I don’t know if by remaining diplomatically silent I’m part of the solution or part of the problem.

    But of all these, my biggest pet peeves about the languge are “affect” versus “effect” and “its” versus “it’s”. A surprising number of authors use these words exactly incorrectly on a consistent basis, and a good portion of them subsequently insist that they are skilled writers.

    • One that’s bothering me lately is that people write “lead” instead of “led,” as in, “You’re being led down the primrose path.”

      It’s and its and affect and effect also bother me, but I am an occasional careless infractor myself, so I never preach or look down at anyone about them, not to mention that to whatever extent those things bother me, obviously from my prose almost no other kinds of carelessness do.

      • One that’s bothering me lately is that people write “lead” instead of “led,” as in, “You’re being led down the primrose path.”

        Thank you. I don’t know how often I’ve questioned and re-questioned myself on this whenever I’ve read writers whom I respect (and who are much better than I) use “lead” to mean “led.”

        If I am crazy, at least I’m not the only one.

        • It’s like, Dude, the word’s even easier than you’re making it. It’s, like, soooo easy.

    • I try to forgive technical errors. I realize that my profession gives me an opportunity to sharpen my ability to detect and avoid technical language foibles, and it would seem obnoxious to thumb my nose at others who occasionally mistake “its” and “it’s,” for example. Even I unthinkingly make the mistake sometimes. Same with “reign” and “rein.”

      What really interests me are the substantive language choices we make to express our ideas. Why did I say “thumb my nose” above? I confess, I didn’t know it actually meant “putting your thumb on your nose and wiggling your fingers.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_gestures. Is that what you thought when you read it? The thumb is the least of that gesture. Why would you make that digit its namesake? I never quite knew what image it was supposed to conjure. I just knew those words were sometimes strung together to express contempt or derision.

      At any rate, that is not the gesture that expresses my idea above. I might have said, “looking down my nose.”

      Michael’s example is a good one of what gets my attention: “You’re being led down the primrose path.” Michael was illustrating the proper use of “led,” but I am more concerned with the actual meaning of that sentence: Does it refer to “earthly pleasures” only, as modern usage seems to have it, or to its ultimate Shakespearean destination in “the everlasting bonfire”?

      • I am happy to forgive a typographical error, too — I make plenty of them myself and I believe I did so in my first comment, which is poignant (not ironic) in a discussion such as this. I can also overlook someone who started editing something but there was a garble in the edit.

        It’s the insistence that one is right in one’s error, or that one does not believe the error to be of significance, that makes the error worthy of comment. My lawyer friend who insists that there is a “shelf corporation” or the person who waves their hand dismissively at the difference between “its” and “it’s” are the ones who change our language by eroding it.

    • “Tricks of the spoke language compound that problem: substituting “all intensive purposes” for “for all intents and purposes” is laziness in listening, not a substitute of one equivalent phrase for another. ”

      I’ve often wondered whether some dyslexia is actually just the result of accurately transcribing an accent. We used to wonder why my sister was such a bad speller; I mean, we’d tell her to write “the dog is running towards the tree”, and she’d just write this total gibberish–“thu dawg us rawnin torsa chree”. I’m kind of glad that she (and we) figured out the difference between “spells like it sounds” and how words were actually pronounced.

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