December 15, 2003
The Perils Of On-Line Dictionaries

I have updated my post on Panama and Max Sawicky, replacing the bare lists of numbers with colorful graphs. These clearly show that the American invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989) were followed by large and persistent increases in democracy and human rights.

Sawicky has obviously read my post, since he reacts (10/15, 10:08 AM) to the second-to-last paragraph by quoting as evidence that 'disinterest' can mean 'lack of interest, indifference'. Too bad he didn't check 'disinterested' as well. There he would have read, from the very same source (American Heritage, 4th edition) the following 'Usage Note':

In traditional usage, disinterested can only mean “having no stake in an outcome,” as in Since the judge stands to profit from the sale of the company, she cannot be considered a disinterested party in the dispute. But despite critical disapproval, disinterested has come to be widely used by many educated writers to mean “uninterested” or “having lost interest,” as in Since she discovered skiing, she is disinterested in her schoolwork. Oddly enough, “not interested” is the oldest sense of the word, going back to the 17th century. This sense became outmoded in the 18th century but underwent a revival in the first quarter of the early 20th. Despite its resuscitation, this usage is widely considered an error. In a 1988 survey, 89 percent of the Usage Panel rejected the sentence His unwillingness to give five minutes of his time proves that he is disinterested in finding a solution to the problem. This is not a significantly different proportion from the 93 percent who disapproved of the same usage in 1980.

Of course, the reason so many of us insist on distinguishing 'disinterest' from 'lack of interest' and 'disinterested' from 'uninterested' is to avoid confusing two very different ideas. Those who don't know the difference, or don't care, may be "educated", but they have been educated badly. It is the same reason that makes many of us object when writers use 'flaunt' for 'flout' ("he was flaunting the law"): if there are two words for two concepts it is best not to use one of them for both. In a hard-copy dictionary, it would not be possible to look up 'disinterest' without also seeing 'disinterested' just below, and the long 'Usage Note' on it. It surely applies to both noun and adjective, though it would have helped if American Heritage had said so.

Of course, all this is relatively trivial. What about the larger issue? Since he has read my post, I wonder why Sawicky does not correct his larger error and emend his original post to admit that there is evidence that some Americans do keep track of democracy in Panama, and that democracy did in fact greatly increase after the overthrow of Manuel Noriega in 1989.* He wouldn't be some kind of partisan hack concealing the evidence that undercuts his case, would he? Or perhaps an intellectual fraud who cannot admit that he is wrong?

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*I think it was The Corner that quoted a Panamanian last April saying how the fall of Hussein's statue in Baghdad brought back wonderful memories of 1989 in Panama City. He didn't seem to think that that victory had been squandered.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at December 15, 2003 10:45 PM

"I wonder why Sawicky does not correct his larger error and emend his original post to admit that there is evidence that some Americans do keep track of democracy in Panama . . . "

I'd tell you, but you told me not to post here.


Posted by: Max on December 16, 2003 12:41 AM

No one reading this site needs an explanation from Max Sawicky as to what is going on. But common decency would (if he had any) compel him to update his own site and tell his unsuspecting readers that there is in fact evidence that Panama is now far more democratic than it was before the American intervention in 1989. An honest man would have provided such an update without being asked. It appears that Max Sawicky is not even honest enough to do so after being asked. And he wonders why I donít much like having him around . . . .

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on December 16, 2003 07:37 PM

Tell him to look up "Clintoid" in this dictionary.

Posted by: Rodger Schultz on December 18, 2003 02:38 PM