So I was part way through writing this when I thought it might be a good idea to check my facts. It turns out the situation is a little more complicated than I thought. What follows is the first draft of the blog post, up to the point where I decided to go do some Googling to make sure I knew what I was talking about…
I’m putting myself at considerable risk of sounding very unpleasant here, but there’s nothing to be done about it. People keep using words wrong, and I’m getting increasingly distracted by it. Hopefully, by writing about it I can exorcise the frustration and move on. I don’t want to be a Lynne Truss, and this issue does not absorb me to the same extent that it did David Foster Wallace (although it’s rude to the latter to include him in the same sentence as the former. In fact, next time you have a couple of hours to devote to proper English usage, read this), but sometimes a stand needs to be taken. There are those who would argue that words’ meanings change over time and the only true meaning of a word is that which it is commonly understood to have – no matter whether the common understanding conforms with the dictionary. But there are a number of cases in which we are actually losing meaning because of the confusion of words. The problem is that there are certain meanings, fine, distinct meanings that often need expression, whose properly assigned words are being crowbarred into sentences where they do not belong and assigned entirely other meanings. So you have cases of two distinct meanings each having their own word, but by a process of confusion and misuse, both words get lumped on to the one meaning, leaving the other meaning bereft of a means of expression. What then, huh?
Well I don’t know, but I wanted to put down a few of the ones that seem to have cropped up far too often recently:
1) Disinterested. I seem to hear this on an almost daily basis. Disinterested does not mean “uninterested” or “indifferent.” It means not having a material interest in – unbiased, without prejudice, an appropriate judge.
…which is when I thought: I am going to look incredibly stupid if it turns out that “disinterested” really is a perfectly good synonym for “uninterested.” So I ran a search and what do you know: Merriam Webster gives as the first meaning of “disinterested”: not having the mind or feelings engaged : not interested <telling them in a disinterested voice — Tom Wicker> <disinterested in women — J. A. Brussel> Damn. Oxford has: not influenced by considerations of personal advantage: a banker is under an obligation to give disinterested advice. Aha! BUT, for each of these sources, the alternative definitions are then reversed, i.e. both dictionaries allow both definitions. They also both go on to discuss the minor controversy around the word, and cite the fact that its original meaning (it was first used around 1612) was in fact synonymous with “indifferent” but this usage fell out of, uh, use and became known as incorrect. HOWEVER, in modern usage “disinterested” appears so often with its original meaning that many people are now prepared to let it go. I, for one, am slightly sad about this because it was so handy to have two negatives of the word “interest” that distinguished between the material and the mental versions of the word. But there you go.
However, I’m still gonna lose it when someone uses “affect” instead of “effect” or vice versa. I had a whole neat section in mind in which I discussed the fact that both words can be either verbs or nouns and wasn’t that cool? but I have not the energy now. Good day.