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.