Thursday, 21 March 2013

Pedantry Corner

I try not to let small things bother me, and occasionally I'm successful.

Before anyone asks what I mean by pedantry, I adopt the standard Oxford dictionary definition:

n. excessive concern with minor details and rules.

So don't bother to comment that I'm being petty, or that the rising tide of illiteracy is against me, or (God forbid) point out my own mistakes. If we have a deal, I shall try to make sure that my visits to Pedantry Corner are rare, and brief.

A frequent source of irritation to me is the way that uninterested and disinterested are considered synonyms. They are not. And unlike words which mean fundamentally the same thing (often a legacy of Britain's Norman and Saxon heritage, and liberally scattered through legal terminology, such as will and testament; aid and abet; null and void), each of these words performs a valuable service in our language.

The magistrate was uninterested means s/he's bored.

The magistrate was disinterested means an application relating to apprehended bias is unlikely to succeed.

So while you can direct me to a dozen dictionaries and websites that now attach both meanings to disinterest, they shouldn't be promoting the confusion. And I frequently have this discussion with lawyers, for whom language is their lifeblood, who can't distinguish between the two.


Jeremy Gans said...

Don't blame the 'tide of illiteracy'. The fault is in the two words themselves. The sole difference between the two words - the prefixes 'un-' and 'dis-' - doesn't remotely signify the distinction in meaning between 'not caring' and 'not biased'. Each prefix just signifies an antonym, in each case to 'interested'. The latter is a homonym for both 'caring' and 'biased'. And it's that homonym that is the real culprit here.

Homonyms are great for poetry and cryptic crosswords, but they shouldn't be celebrated for their 'valuable service in our language', at least in practical settings. I'd agree with you if there was no other word for the traditional meaning of 'disinterested'. But there is: 'unbiased'. That word is surely much plainer English. So why insist on keeping a different word that quite understandably confuses some, perhaps many, people?

Unknown said...

I just don't use the word "disinterested".

Anonymous said...

Your complaint reminds me of the one where the teacher says to his pupil "Why are you such a bad student? Is it ignorance or apathy?"

And the student replies "I don't know, and I don't care."

(cue the kick drum)