Pedantic, moi?

Posted by on November 12, 2009

© Pedro Díaz - Fotolia.com

One of the downsides of being in the dictionary business is that most people have a completely erroneous idea of what we do. A recent article in the Times ticked all the boxes in its caricature of the lexicographer: old, “boffinish” and hopelessly outmoded (still working with card indexes, apparently), we are nevertheless seen as worthy guardians of the language, the people that everyone else relies on to repel the barbarians at the gate. And the corollary of this is that we are pedantically obsessed with “correct” usage: for lexicographers, we are told, “the words disinterested and uninterested are as distinct as lions and tigers”.

I hate to disappoint those whose default position is that the language is going to the dogs, but lexicographers (and professional linguists in general) are the least pedantic people you’ll ever meet. You only have to read David Crystal’s admirably sensible comments on text messages to see how a top-class linguist demolishes hysterical claims linking the rise of texting with the end of civilization.

So what do we think about disinterested and uninterested? It’s a hot topic, all right, with hundreds of thousands of Google pages devoted to pointing out the difference and warning the unwary against getting it wrong. Uninterested is uncontroversial, though it’s also rather uncommon – we’re more likely to use a formulation like not very interested, not all that interested or not particularly interested (our corpus has almost 10,000 instances of patterns like these, but only 852 of uninterested). Traditionally, disinterested means “impartial” and therefore in a position to make an objective judgment. We have 1,383 instances of disinterested and a clear majority show this meaning: the nouns it most frequently modifies are party, observer and spectator, and it is often used alongside other adjectives like neutral, impartial, and scientific. But many writers and speakers also use it to mean uninterested, as in:

Polls showed that most Italians were relatively disinterested in Berlusconi’s conflicts of interest between politics and business.

If you look in the Macmillan Dictionary, you will see that the entry for disinterested gives both common meanings, but it also notes – without comment or judgment – that many people disapprove of the second one. This looks like a good compromise: our job is to reflect the way people use language in real life, but it seems only fair to warn readers if a word is known to be contentious. That way, they can make an informed choice. But we don’t see it as our job to tell people what they should and shouldn’t say, and you won’t find any good, evidence-based dictionary condemning the “uninterested” meaning. And by the way, that use is not some modern aberration: the OED has this quotation from as far back as 1684:

How dis-interested are they all in Worldly matters since they fling their Wealth and Riches into the Sea.

So don’t shoot the lexicographers – we’re just disinterested observers.

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