A Word, Please: The distinction between ‘un’ and ‘dis’ may leave you dissatisfied
Are you dissatisfied with a recent purchase? Or are you unsatisfied with it? The two words seem interchangeable because, in most cases, they are. But a closer look shines a light on the fascinating nuances of the English language and how we use words when we’re not paying attention.
“Dissatisfied” and “unsatisfied” both mean “not satisfied.” But they aren’t exactly the same.
“Though ‘dissatisfied’ and ‘unsatisfied’ appear to be synonyms, there are distinctions evident in the usage examples in the Merriam-Webster files,” says Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.
Despite the word “Dictionary” in its name, this book is a usage guide, which has a different job from that of Merriam-Webster’s actual dictionaries. Usage guides don’t just list words with their definitions. They analyze how words are used, based on databases full of examples from print and speech.
So while Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines both “unsatisfied” and “dissatisfied” as “not satisfied,” the usage guide homes in on an important difference in the examples in its research database: “These examples show that ‘unsatisfied’ is more frequently used to modify nonhuman terms (such as ambition, debts, curiosity, demands, claims) than human ones and that in all instances the meaning is generally of something or someone being ‘unfulfilled’ or ‘unappeased.’”
Clearly, the idea of an unsatisfied debt relies on a specific definition of “satisfy”: to carry out the terms of something, like a contract, or to meet a financial obligation. The idea of a dissatisfied customer builds on a different definition: to make happy, please or appease.
But that doesn’t explain why the two terms use different prefixes. Both “un-” and “dis-” have multiple definitions, but none that can make sense of the differences between “dissatisfied” and “unsatisfied.” Apparently, “dis-” just hitched itself to the “happy” meaning of “satisfied” while “un-” teamed up with the contractual or financial meaning.
The form of the verb that goes with “have,” the past participle, can trip up a lot of English-language users. June Casagrande shows us where to find the right word in the dictionary.
These words aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s nothing wrong with saying you’re unsatisfied with your purchase. But, fascinatingly, you would never say a debt is dissatisfied, which would seem to suggest that the debt is a living creature with feelings.
All this brings to mind a more famous controversy around a similar word pair: disinterested and uninterested. The kerfuffle started in the early 1950s when language experts started complaining that “disinterested” was being widely misused and that misuse was eroding a helpful and “elegant” distinction.
“Disinterested,” these folks said, didn’t mean not interested. It meant impartial. As one expert put it in 1970, “The umpire, ideally, would be disinterested; the one who did not care about the game would be uninterested.”
So in this view, if you said you were disinterested in pop music or history or your uncle’s war stories, you would be saying something different from what you meant.
But like so much of the language fussiness that came into fashion in the 1950s, this idea is a little misguided. It was never true that “disinterested” originally meant impartial and that this original definition was eroding due to sloppy usage. Merriam’s usage guide examines Oxford English Dictionary entries going back to the early 1600s to show that this belief is “erroneous.”
“The OED shows that the earlier sense of ‘disinterested’ is the simple negative of ‘interested,’” Merriam’s reports. There’s no evidence it meant “impartial” until a half century later. Meanwhile, “uninterested” has done an about-face: When it first appeared in the 1700s, “uninterested” meant impartial or fair in the way that “disinterested” does today.
So anyone who thinks the distinction between “disinterested” and “uninterested” has been going downhill can rest assured that the words today are closer to their original meanings than they were 50 or 60 years ago.
June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.
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