Are you disinteresting me?

disinterested 1

I then watched every ball of the Sydney Test live, and I’ve never seen anyone as disinterested or distracted as Kevin [Pietersen].
Paul Downton, Managing Director of the England and Wales Cricket Board

The suggestion that I was uninterested during the winter Ashes series against Australia is wholly untrue.
Kevin Pietersen, Surrey and former England cricketer

Was Pietersen disinterested, uninterested, or neither? Is he answering the charge made against him or subtly shifting his answer? Do we care, should we care?

Uninterested now always means ‘bored, unconcerned, indifferent’1. It also used to mean ‘impartial’, but this is now obsolete.

Disinterested mostly means ‘not influenced by one’s own advantage; impartial, free from personal interest’, but can also mean ‘bored, unconcerned, indifferent’. It’s this double meaning that excites pedants and logophiles.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED) plays an interesting hand, giving the ‘bored’ definition top billing for disinterested, adding ‘Although it is the first recorded meaning and is commonly used, sense 1 [bored] is often regarded as incorrect’, which feels like a mischievous dig at outraged usage prescriptivists, who favour sense 2 (impartial)2.

By contrast, novelist Kingsley Amis wasn’t much troubled by doubt in dismissing sense 1.

The most famous and ancient of all misuses and not for that reason any less a case of ignorant bullshit. Nowadays perhaps this depraved form is responding to decades of denigration and starting to become less popular than its virtuous cousin, ‘uninterested’.
The King’s English

Robin Burchfield, in his update to Fowler, adheres broadly to the SOED’s sense 2, albeit in a voice of mild, almost hesitant reasonableness spread over almost a full page; the ‘impartial’ sense has a longer period of continuous use and ‘has the edge’ with support from other words of the same family. He concludes:

My recommendation is to restrict disinterested to its sense of ‘impartial’, at any rate for the present.
Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised third edition)

This is all very well, but it doesn’t properly address utility. Confining disinterested to the ‘impartial’ sense rather than having it become a de facto synonym for uninterested reduces ambiguity while allowing us to say more things. It is not an exact synonym for impartial, and its exact meaning is a useful thing to be able to say in a single word. In this case, being prescriptive adds to rather than restricts our freedom of expression, at least if we define freedom of expression conveniently. We can say more things more clearly and with greater economy. We needn’t express self-applauding outrage if someone ‘misuses’ it, we can simply use it ‘correctly’ as writers and editors3.

Where does this leave Pietersen and Downton?

Was Downton suggesting that Pietersen’s South African upbringing meant he had no national interest in the Ashes tests, that he stood aloof as a uniquely impartial observer–player during the games? Did Pietersen tricksily avoid answering that by saying, on the contrary, they were very interesting games, I enjoyed them? It’s a theory, but I’m guessing that they aren’t engaged in a subtle intellectual duel.

Almost certainly Downton unknowingly used the ‘less’ correct word, with Pietersen deliberately or inadvertently correcting him. I wonder if whomever drafted Pietersen’s statement was subtly reproving Downton by changing the word used; a sly little dig. The England cricket team may not be brilliant just now, but the English still excel at that kind of thing.

(Some further reading, if you can bear it: a fine long review in the New Yorker here gives a shrewd and balanced summary of the ‘usage wars’ (i.e. descriptivism vs prescriptivism), while there’s a good sympathetic review of Amis’s book here and an entertaining and illuminating article by his son Martin about it here.)

Paul Fishman (Bristol, June 2014)

1. Most definitions have been based on, but not exactly reproduced from, those in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary Sixth Edition.

2. The concise online OED reverses this, though it retains the same tone.

3. Having said this, we may already be seeing the emergence of a new distinction between the words, or even of two new distinctions and a new ambiguity. I’ve read an American piece suggesting that ‘disinterested is often used to indicate that someone has lost interest as opposed to having been uninterested from the start’, while in The King’s English the very British Kingsley Amis, having biffed the heretics, went on to say that ‘the misuse has acquired a shade of meaning of its own […] a schoolboy who is uninterested in the lesson will be merely be sunk in mindless apathy and gloom, whereas his disinterested classmate will be pulling faces and launching paper aeroplanes, actively expressing boredom’.

2 thoughts on “Are you disinteresting me?

  1. Hmm.. I try to avoid pedantry – not the most endearing attribute – but am firmly in the ‘having nothing to gain’ school on the disinterested question. Impartial doesn’t quite work as a synonym, as you’ve pointed out, and it’s an important concept.

    1. Agreed; the other thing is that certainty on these questions is often in inverse proportion to knowledge (cf. split infinitives). But some distinctions are important, or at least useful.

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