Word War: Disinterested vs Uninterested

When your friends talk about a subject that you are not keen about, are you disinterested or uninterested in joining the discussion with them? These words are normally used interchangeably, and quite loosely, by a lot of people, but are there any differences between the two? Quite so.

Disinterested can be used to mean “impartial; unbiased by personal interest or advantage” as in “The panel should hire someone disinterested to judge the contest.” Another meaning of the word is “not interested,” as in “Because she stopped following LANY months ago, she is now disinterested in their new song.” These definitions are well established in all varieties of English. At the same time, a lot of people, especially pedants and prescriptivists, argue that disinterested should only be used to mean “impartial,” so we can minimize the confusion with the term uninterested.

Uninterested means “have or show no feeling of interest; indifferent.” For example, someone who dislikes reading poetry might be uninterested in discussing the complete works of Elizabeth Barret Browning.

Over the years, disinterested and uninterested have swapped definitions, adding to the uncertainty surrounding which word means “indifferent” and which word means “impartial.” Both are variations of the word interested, from the Latin interesse “to concern, to be between.” Interested is usually used to denote “having the attention or curiosity engaged.” A less common definition is “influenced by personal or selfish motives; having a stake in or money involved,” which comes from the use of the word interest in business and finance.

Although context often makes the intended meaning clear, it is best to use disinterested when you mean impartial or unbiased, and uninterested when you mean indifferent or bored.

2 thoughts on “Word War: Disinterested vs Uninterested

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  1. Thanks for this post, Kirby. Initially, I got confused about “disinterested” being “not interested,” and “uninterested” being “to have or show no feeling of interest.” I am glad though that you clarified everything in the last paragraph. Thanks for this lesson. Now, I can say, “The judge remained disinterested in the conflicting sentiments during the impeachment proceedings.”

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