Saturday 13 September 2014

Disinterested in Auden

Friday, 12 September 2014

Auden and the OED

Many otherwise serene people of my acquaintance get hot under the collar about the commonplace use of 'disinterested' as a synonym for 'uninterested'. What may surprise them - and it certainly surprised me when I looked it up - is that the confusion has been around for so long. 

When W. H. Auden was Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1956 to 1961 he became an acquaintance of R. W. Burchfield, a lecturer at Auden's college, Christ Church, and subsequently editor of the second Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary. According to Burchfield himself, Auden several times urged him to include particular words in the Supplement and, on one occasion, 'pressed me to include the word 'disinterested' in the now established sense of "uninterested".' (Burchfield eventually did so, but see below)

This 'now established sense' of 'disinterested' as 'uninterested' was, at the time of Auden's lobbying, already established in the OED, with a first quotation from no less an authority than John Donne, but marked as 'obsolete'. Craigie and Onions (in the first OED Supplement of 1933) had removed the 'obsolete' label and entered three further quotations, all dating from1928, without further comment. Burchfield included three more, but added the damning phrase 'often regarded as a loose use', despite Auden's endorsement.

You can read more about Auden's connection to Burchfield and the OED and how the poet came to be a favoured source for the Dictionary's compilers here.

My latest TLS blog is also about Auden's many OED citations, including the first use in print of 'queer', 'butch', 'Disneyesque', 'shagged', 'toilet hunour' and 'Mosleyite'. Interested? Or perhaps you're completely disinterested. Read 'Apolitical ponce': Auden and the OED.

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