1. The use of disinterested to mean ‘uninterested’, although not a problem to Fowler (1926), is a keyword in current debates about correct usage. Those who rage most furiously are not always aware, however, that the word has changed its principal meaning several times during the nearly four centuries of its existence. It began by meaning ‘not interested’, then about 1650 developed the meaning ‘impartial, unbiased’, and has more recently tended to revert to its older meaning. These meanings reflect the different meanings of interest, as differently used in They showed no interest in the idea and They have an interest in the business.
2. The alternative word uninterested has had an opposite history, originally meaning ‘impartial’ and later meaning ‘not interested’, although it shows no sign of returning to its earlier meaning. The problem then lies with disinterested. Informed opinion is divided into those who believe that a useful distinction, between disinterested = impartial and uninterested = not interested, is being eroded, and those who are content to let disinterested serve as a synonym of uninterested as long as other words are available for the other meaning (impartial, neutral, objective, unbiased, unprejudiced).
3. The following examples of disinterested show the strong presence of both meanings in current usage: (= impartial)

• Many competent and disinterested experts on world poverty often stress the sterility of the East–West confrontation —Encounter, 1981

• She could imagine the coroner's disinterested voice —J. Bedford, 1984

• But of course none of the observers of twelfth-century England was disinterested —Antonia Fraser, 1988

• The doctor ran her hands round again, with the same disinterested precision —Sara Maitland, 1990

• American foreign policy has rarely been disinterestedly philanthropic —Scotland on Sunday, 2002

• (= not interested: note that in this meaning disinterested is often followed by in, on the analogy of uninterested) Washington ensured that he would appear to be what in fact he was, a republican gentleman disinterested in power —Times Literary Supplement, 1988

• She remains stubbornly neat and unadorned, disinterested in fashion —S. Johnson, 1990


• Those disinterested in oriental delicacies lounge on sofas, drinking glasses of potent Leffe beer —Sunday Herald (Glasgow), 1999.

4. The recommendation must be to restrict disinterested to the meaning ‘impartial’ and to use alternative words when necessary to avoid possible misunderstanding. Uninterested remains the standard and recommended form in the meaning ‘lacking interest’:

• I wouldn't say that —he was totally uninterested in both of us —Graham Greene, 1980

• He gave…a certain impression of being uninterested in people except at an agreeably superficial level —D. Fraser, 1982

• To viewers who are uninterested in politics, it was worse than the World Cup —Observer, 1990.

Modern English usage. 2014.

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  • disinterested — dis·in·ter·est·ed /dis in tə rəs təd, in trəs , in tə ˌres / adj: free of any interest esp. of a pecuniary nature: impartial a disinterested person to witness the will Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Law. Merriam Webster. 1996 …   Law dictionary

  • Disinterested — Dis*in ter*est*ed, a. [Cf. {Disinteressed}.] Not influenced by regard to personal interest or advantage; free from selfish motive; having no relation of interest or feeling; not biased or prejudiced; as, a disinterested decision or judge. [1913… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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  • disinterested — 1610s, unconcerned, the sense we now would ascribe to UNINTERESTED (Cf. uninterested), with the sense of impartial going to disinteressed (c.1600). See DIS (Cf. dis ) + INTEREST (Cf. interest). Modern sense of disinterested is first attested… …   Etymology dictionary

  • disinterested — ► ADJECTIVE 1) not influenced by considerations of personal advantage; impartial. 2) having or feeling no interest. DERIVATIVES disinterestedly adverb disinterestedness noun. USAGE There is a difference between disinterested and uninterested …   English terms dictionary

  • disinterested — uninterested, detached, aloof, unconcerned, *indifferent, incurious Analogous words: dispassionate, unbiased, impartial, *fair, just: *neutral, negative Antonyms: interested: prejudiced, biased …   New Dictionary of Synonyms

  • disinterested — [adj] detached, uninvolved aloof, candid, casual, dispassionate, equitable, even handed, impartial, impersonal, incurious, indifferent, just watching the clock*, lackadaisical, negative, neutral, nonpartisan, not giving a damn*, outside,… …   New thesaurus

  • disinterested — [dis in′trəs tid, disint′ər əs tid] adj. 1. not influenced by personal interest or selfish motives; impartial; unbiased 2. uninterested; indifferent: this usage, a revival of an obsolete meaning, is objected to by some SYN. INDIFFERENT… …   English World dictionary

  • disinterested — adjective Date: circa 1612 1. a. not having the mind or feelings engaged ; not interested < telling them in a disinterested voice Tom Wicker > < disinterested in women J. A. Brussel > b. no longer interested < husband and wife become… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • disinterested — [[t]dɪsɪ̱ntrəstɪd[/t]] 1) ADJ GRADED Someone who is disinterested is not involved in a particular situation or not likely to benefit from it and is therefore able to act in a fair and unselfish way. The current sole superpower is far from being a …   English dictionary

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