Two friends, Judy Warner and Todd Speidell, pointed me to Charles Murray’s short article These 9 Words Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean, taken from his new book The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead. All the mistakes he noted were, I was gratified to see, mistakes that annoy me too, and for the same reason: that each combination of two words that once had different meaning and each broadening of the meaning of a word that once had a precise meaning robs us of a useful word. Here are two examples from the article:
Disinterested used to mean uninterested.
The meaning of disinterested is “free of bias and self-interest.” It is essential that a judge be disinterested, for example. Disinterested does NOT, repeat NOT, mean “lack of interest” or “uninterested.” I put this so emphatically because we’re not talking just about proper usage. Disinterest used in its correct sense is on its last legs — I’ve been appalled to see it misused in articles in the Washington Post and other major publications. English does not have another word that conveys the meaning of disinterested as economically. If we lose the distinctive meaning of the word, we have measurably degraded our ability to express ourselves in English.
Masterful used to mean masterly.
When people use masterful, they almost always really mean masterly: performing in an extremely skillful and accomplished way. As in the case of disinterested, we are in danger of losing a useful word for which we have no ready alternative. If you want to describe someone who exhibits the qualities of a person who is confidently and effectively in authority, with connotations of power and dominance, masterful is the perfect word. Use masterly when you want to compliment someone for exhibiting a high level of skill.
The second distinction almost no one makes. I wouldn’t have made it if I hadn’t found it in a list of words often confused in a book on writing I happened to pick up and glance at one day.