Prairie Lights: Disinterested? Well, we do our best


"The Jury," by John Morgan

If you are ever tried before a jury, you will want the jurors to be disinterested, but not uninterested.

Filling out a medical form the other day, I was asked whether I had lately felt any “fatigue or disinterest.”

I wanted to say, “As a reporter and proprietor of an online newspaper, I strive to be disinterested on a daily basis, unless I am clearly stating my opinion, and even then I hope a spirit of disinterestedness informs what I have to say.”

But I didn’t think that would help with the diagnosis, so I merely checked “no.”

It is a small point, anyway, nothing to get worked up about, though in election years—especially in the midst of this madhouse campaign—I find myself latching like a bulldog onto small points, maybe as a way of holding onto my marbles.

You see, I was taught that “disinterest” had only one meaning: a lack of bias or prejudice, so that a person who is disinterested is a neutral party, someone who is, in the words of Webster’s unabridged dictionary, “unbiased by personal interest or advantage.”

For many years, however, I have avoided using the word at all. The notion that disinterest means “lack of interest” is now so widespread that I figured using the word correctly would only be confusing, and people would think I had made a strange blunder.

After my recent run-in with the medical form, I decided to look the word up, to see if I was missing anything. I was. The entry in Webster’s unabridged reminded me that English is always changing, and that concepts of right and wrong are hard to nail down.

According to Webster’s, disinterested and uninterested “share a confused and confusing history.” In its earliest use, uninterested meant “impartial” and disinterested meant “not interested or indifferent.” And by “various developmental twists,” Webster’s usage note continued, disinterested is now used in both senses while uninterested is used almost exclusively to mean “not interested or indifferent.”

The latest copyright on the Webster’s I’m quoting was 2001, and I suspect that in the past 15 years disinterested has rarely been used to mean “impartial.”

I mourn its passing but I realize there is little anyone can do about such things. There’s no point in being “correct” if 95 percent of your readers think you’re wrong.

My sympathies, though, are with people like usage expert A.R. Orage, who wrote in 1922 that “No word in the English language is more difficult [than disinterested] to define or better worth attempting to define. Somewhere or other in its capacious folds it contains all of the ideas of ethics and even, I should say, of religion. … I venture to say that whoever has understood the meaning of ‘disinterestedness’ is not far off understanding the goal of human culture.”

I’m not even sure what he means, but I have read that paragraph nine or 10 times now and enjoy it more each time.

As with so many things in life, you learn which battles to fight. I should be getting crankier and more inflexible with age, but I seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

I still correct my daughters when they say “on accident,” but as time goes on the distinction seems hopeless. If you are my age, there is absolutely no question that “by accident” is the only possible construction. But if you’re under the age of 35 or 40 (based on my observation), you are probably more likely to think “on accident” is perfectly fine.

I have read various theories about why this change is occurring, but the reason hardly matters. The English still say “cater for” and we say “cater to.” When and how did we change the preposition? I don’t know, but I’m sure many people in England think we are barbarians for saying “cater to.”

The “right” preposition sounds right because it is the one we’re used to. When it changes, by what Webster’s called “various developmental twists,” a new “right” form is established.

A good writer and editor once advised me to limit my use of the word “got,” saying it was almost always unnecessary. I had heard that point before and I still don’t understand it.

It’s such a small word, such an ancient and sturdy one, so Anglo-Saxon. Somehow, I came to like it more the longer I thought about it. I was hoping Bill Bryson would have something to say about it, so I looked in the index of his book, a favorite of mine, “The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way.”

“Got” wasn’t in the index, but wait. There it was, right in the title. That was all I needed to know.

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