Lee, Dongkook. 2017. On the Meanings of Disinterested: A Corpus-based Analysis. English Language and Linguistics 23.2, 41-65. The English adjective disinterested has two meanings, ‘impartial’ and ‘not interested’, the latter of which is the same or nearly the same as the meaning of uninterested. Some teachers and English professionals object to this use, while others admit that disinterested has encroached on uninterested’s territory. Ironically, the second meaning is the older sense of the word, the first being a later development. Previous studies, which usually advocate one interpretation or another, have not provided an extensive empirical analysis of the phenomenon. This study investigates the meanings of the adjective by making use of relevant data from modern corpora with variations such as genre, regional differences, and historical changes. The result shows that the meaning ‘not interested’ is preferred in American English over British English, and is more frequently used in spoken texts (surprisingly, over 50% in American colloquial English), but is used the least in academic writings. The usage was considered an error during the 1800s but from the 1900s on, the meaning of ‘not interested’ has revived and continued to be used. In different national varieties of English used around the world this disputed meaning is now becoming more common and prevalent. The increased usage of this meaning supports the polysemy of disinterested even though this word semantically overlaps with its cousin, uninterested.
Key words: disinterested, polysemy, corpus analysis, American and British English, genre, BYU Corpora.