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Not only uninterested, but actively avoiding interest

Can I just rant for a minute? Would that be OK? You don’t even have to really listen, just nod and smile and think of something else.

Your Humble Blogger really hates the use of the word disinterested to mean unconcerned or apathetic. That is, it bugs me when people use the word where YHB would use the word uninterested; there is a distinction between them that gets right on my stickler nerve.

This is particularly bad for me because the Youngest Member has been once again keen on listening to They Might Be Giants: Here Come the ABCs!, and one of my favorite songs from that set is E Eats Everything, which contains the line “ D is just disinterested/In anything you’ve got”. Gets right up my proverbial, it does, and prevents me from thoroughly enjoying a terrific song. Then I noticed the word (used correctly by my lights) in the bit I typed in from The Dresser, which reminded me that Lowell Weicker had called my State’s Governor disinterested in a speech I read about in a Hartford Courant article.

Digression: I think I actually read the longer on-line version of this story, but in both cases, the headline is that Former Gov. calls Current Gov. “disinterested”, but the body of the text does not include any such quote from the former Gov. This seems very, very strange to me. Does it seem strange to you? I was eventually able to find some video in which Mr. Weicker refers to “Republican Governors who are either corrupt or disinterested”, which given the meaning of the word as YHB uses it, should pretty much cover everybody, right? But yes, I think it is clear that he is referring to the only Governor Connecticut has at the moment, and that he means she is apathetic or unconcerned, rather than free of conflict. Still, it seems very strange to me to put the word in the headline and not include any aspect of the context in the body of the story at all. End Digression.

Now, I haven’t looked up the history of the word, and I suspect that the distinction for which I am a stickler for is something made up in the Stickler Period of grammar, possibly by William Strunk himself, or by Henry Fowler, or perhaps Stephen Fry. I have had to give up my mockery or literally, when presented with the evidence that (a) it is doing the same job as really, and (2) the use of literally as an intensifier is hundreds of years old, and therefore has more right to exist than I have right to deny it. I suspect that the use of disinterested to mean uninterested is hundreds of years old as well, and no doubt there are plenty of examples that would, if I considered them carefully, persuade me that my carping on disinterested is inconsistent and wrong. I don’t want to be thus persuaded. I want to keep getting angry about this one.

This isn’t like begs the question, where I continue to maintain that the use of the phrase to mean provoke the question, as it most commonly is used now, is just wrong, and I am willing to argue it out. No, this is one where I am unwilling to argue it out, because I would lose, and I don’t want to lose. So I generally keep my mouth shut about it.

Does this seem unreasonable? As a former stickler turned descriptivist, I often feel that I am missing the righteous anger of the peevologist. There is something rather magnificent about being shocked by the slovenly habits of so-called educated people these days.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Since I can't read a post like this and not reach for the OED, here's the history, if the dictionary is to be trusted on the matter. There is a history of "disinterested" being used as a synonym for "uninterested," but it is old history: the latest use attested in the first edition OED is 1767, and they go so far as to say "? Obs." with respect to this usage. The use of "disinterested" to mean "impartial" goes back equally far. So if sticklers were responsible for the change, they were of Dr. Johnson's generation, not William Strunk's.

In this case, I think it is worth criticizing the use of "disinterested" in cases where "uninterested" is meant, just because the concept of "disinterestedness" needs defending. If it is in danger of being erased, that's a problem.

The problem I have with the "begs the question" question is that the proper use of "begging the question" is almost entirely obscure to anyone not devoted (as you are) to the art of argumentation qua argumentation. Now, it may be that humanity is failing itself in its disinterest with the art of argumentation qua argumentation, but does that mean it should stop using what appears an otherwise useful phrase?


Also, the phrase "beg the question" is a terrible translation of petitio principii, in the first place. Logicians really ought just to use the Latin. Or, shit, the Greek. It was Aristotle's thing, after all. Or maybe "argue the premise," since that's what it actually means.

Okay, now my glasses are getting steamed. I'm going away again.


All I can ever remember about "begs the question" (from a William Safire column I read long ago) is that it does not mean what most people use it to mean. Its actual meaning, as Matt suggests, is so obscure to me that I simply never, ever use it.

As for your original question, no, I do not think you are being unreasonable, since the erosion of difference between disinterested and uninterested strikes me much more as a clear case of verbicide.

(Now if you will just agree with my mother that moving your tassel from one side of your mortarboard to the other when you have been graduated is wrong, you will make the biggest stickler I know a very happy woman.)

I have been chewing over this disinterested/unbiased/apathetic for far too long, now and am wondering—do we simply no longer use the word interest in that way any more? I wrote about this a long time ago, in connection with a Geoff Nunberg piece on the term special interests. We do still use that phrase, of course, but not to mean anything in particular, and the phrase conflict of interest has likewise lost any specificity of meaning. There's a quote in Mr. Nunberg's piece that has Aneurin Bevan saying that the student of politics “must always be on his guard against the old words, for the words persist when the reality behind them has changed.” This is true, undoubtedly, but it is also true often enough that the reality stays the same but the words change.

Having said that, I do think the idea of interest is useful, that one has an interest in something that is potentially profitable, that there are banking interests and coal interests and so on, and that individuals often have interests in more than one area, and that sometimes these interests conflict, and that sometimes individuals are disinterested in a certain matter, and can thus act without an eye to their own pocketbook. I don't insist that we use the word interest to describe all of those things (as well as usury and curiosity), nor does the use of the word disinterested to also mean apathetic or uncaring mean that it can't be used in my way, but still. Gr.

As for question-begging, I suppose it's correct to simply not use the phrase at all—there are certainly other ways to describe what is going on. But that won't keep me from being annoyed by other people using the phrase incorrectly, which will always grate on my ears.


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