Commonly confused words: disinterested or uninterested (and disinterred or uninterred)?

Disinterested or uninterested?

If you ever have to appear before the High Court of Australia, you want the judges to be disinterested

There was a furore late in 2022 when an ABC journalist used uninterested when she meant disinterested. While many people use the words interchangeably, they do mean quite different things.

Disinterested means impartial, even-handed, being fair to all involved. A disinterested person – like a judge or a sports umpire – may be extremely interested in what is happening in front of them. The meaning is without a interest, where interest means having a stake or share in the outcome of something. Another way to explain it is not having skin in the game. Unless you are writing or talking about legal matters, or sports umpires, you probably won’t need to use disinterested.

Uninterested is what most people mean when they use disinterested. Uninterested means not interested (which is subtly different from without an interest) – or bored.


Uninterested means bored

The seventh edition of the Australian style manual is quite clear:

‘Disinterested’ is often used to mean ‘uninterested’, but this use is not correct.

Now you know the difference. I wish I had a handy way to tell you to remember which one is which, but I don’t; you’ll just have to remember yourselves.

Disinterred and uninterred

Again, these two words look similar but mean quite different things. Inter here means to bury. Disinter means to dig up something that has been buried.

  • The body was disinterred for forensic examination once allegations of murder spread.

The dog will probably not disinter a bone here at the beach

Uninterred means unburied, or that something has not yet been buried.

  • The uninterred bodies were kept at the coroner’s laboratory until investigations could be completed.

Some people’s remains are never buried; their uninterred ashes are kept by their families in a special urn

This time there is a way to remember which one is which: disinter and dig up both start with ‘d’, while uninterred and unburied both start with ‘u’.

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Images: Court 1 of the High Court of Australia by Bidgee from Wikimedia Commons, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Australia; representation of justice photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash; bored man by by Abhay Singh on Unsplash; man with urn by Sysoda Chau on Unsplash; digging dog by Janusz Maniak on Unsplash

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