Disperse vs. Disburse

As an editor, you’re exposed to all kinds of weird language use: convoluted sentence structures, idiosyncratic punctuation, unique and unorthodox uses of the formatting features in a word processor. You name it, it’s there.

One oddity you’ll always encounter is the use of one word when another is meant. The typical notation for this for a lot of editors is ww for “wrong word.”

Sometimes these substitutions are purely phonetic: a writer will use a homophone by mistake, even though they know the right word. Pair for pear or pare, for instance; or feet for feat; or, of course, too for to or two. Or, as I noticed just this week in a newspaper: vile for vial. It’s an easy slip, you just hope (more accurately, you expect) that these will be caught before something goes to press. We all do it: I once found that I had written the meaningless (but phonetically similar) “neck store” for “next door” and didn’t catch it until I was reviewing the draft days later. The words were spelled correctly, they were just entirely wrong.

A wrong word might show up due to another cause. I recently came across contingency (meaning: an unforeseen circumstance) when contingent (a group of people) was meant. Perhaps the writer used the wrong word by mistake, or simply typed the wrong word when he knew the right one, or maybe he spelled it wrong and auto-correct provided a false correction.

One word that I’ve seen misused in this way several times is disbursed for dispersed. I most recently came across it in a published non-fiction book, and I suppose we could chalk it up to a random, accidental use, and note that within the chapter money and budgets were being discussed (the importance of which will be clear in a few paragraphs). But I don’t want to be quite so forgiving. The book had a number of other things ‘wrong’ with it (in my opinion), including the emphasis given to events and persons, a strained and artificial dichotomy and rivalry to justify the author’s shaky thesis, and a blatant variety of partisan home-town boosterism in a book that should have covered its subject more broadly. The vocabulary misuse only added to my irritation as a reader.

My personal literary tastes aside, what’s the story with these words: disperse and disburse? What does each mean, how are they alike, and how are they different? Let’s get to it.

The more commonly used (and far more commonly intended) word is disperse. It means to distribute or, more often, to scatter, or sometimes to dispel or dilute to the point of disappearance. It comes ultimately from the Latin dispersus, which is a form of the verb dispergere, “to scatter,” which is in turn created from the prefix dis- (“in different directions, away“) and spargere, “to sprinkle.” As with many words with Latin roots, it made its way out of French into English. It was in use no later than the early 16th century (OED gives a first use citation from 1503). The adjective form of the word (now obsolete) goes back to the late 14th century.

Disburse–also a verb–has almost nothing in common with disperse. Just looking at the words (which should not be pronounced the same: if you use the same sound for both the “p” and the “b” in these words, you’re being awfully sloppy) the dis- prefix seems to be an obvious overlap. But it isn’t, at least not exactly. According to the OED, the way dis- is used in these two cases is not the same. We could go off into the weeds on an extended digression about this, but the end result would be that dis- has at least four distinct origins and five distinct definitions in English. The dis- in disburse, says the OED, isn’t the “in different directions, awaydis- of disperse, but is rather another prefix (still Latin) “implying removal, aversion, negation, reversal of action.” The burse portion comes from bourse (Old French) and traces back to the Latin bursa (“purse“). Together, the verb means to pay out or expend. In broad terms, it’s a synonym for “to spend.” If you’re someone who suffers from bursitis and knows that the condition is an inflammation of the bursa, and you wonder if the terms are related, they are. That bursa and the bursa that evolved into disburse are one and the same. They indicate different kinds of purses–one for money, one for lubrication between bones–but purses (bursa) nonetheless.

It might be argued that disbursing is a specific type of dispersal, one which only concerns money. I won’t accept that argument here (and the definition doesn’t really support it). I’ve encountered incorrect uses of disburse several times in my editing career, but I have never seen it used correctly. To repeat: every time I’ve seen it used in a work in progress, it’s been an error. This has led me to the personal decision that in everyday writing this term should be skunked: it should be avoided, even when its use would be correct, because readers won’t know what it means, will think it’s an error for disperse, or will know what it means but find it pretentious. (When used in an appropriate financial context, however, the word is acceptable.)

Google’s Ngram corpus reveals that disperse has always been the more common word, and that even though its relative use dropped a lot between about 1800 and 1900 (it’s held steady since), disperse is still used slightly more than 10 times as often as disburse. I suspect disburse largely shows up in two places: specialized (financial) documents or as an error for disperse.

An unscientific review of the data supports my suspicion. I found 82 clean uses of disburse across a recent two-year period (the data came from the Ngrams corpus). In 70 cases (85.4%) the word was used correctly in the context of finance, economics, or a closely related idea. One use (1.2%) was borderline by the strict definition of the word, but was close enough to accept. Three uses (3.7%) were ambiguous; the context was such that the word might appear at first glance to be correct, but it probably shouldn’t have been used–as an editor I would have made a change. Seven uses (8.5%) were clear errors: disperse (or another word) should have been used, such as one use discussing a call for the police to “disburse” a crowd.

If you’re checking my math and see that this sums to only 81 of 82 items in the sample, here’s the reason: there was one gratuitous use of disburse from a 2004 novel in which the author put it in the mouth of an attorney in stilted dialogue. The word that should have been used was probably dissolve. That pushes total misuses up to eight, or 9.8% of the sample. So, roughly speaking, about 10% of the time that this word makes it into print, it’s been used incorrectly. More than 85% of the time it’s used in a correct financial context, and the remainder of uses are arguably incorrect (but at least share the correct financial intent).

One of my favorite usage guides, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th edition–yes, long-time readers, I’ve finally upgraded to the new edition, and it’s as wonderful as ever), has an entry for disburse and disperse. Garner being Garner, it doesn’t go deep into etymology, but it provides solid usage examples and explanations of correct and incorrect usage, with plenty of commentary, all of which support what I’ve written above. Garner’s also goes on to declare the form dispersement a nonword (use dispersal instead…please!).

And, in a trifecta I’ve rarely observed in this source, Garner’s pins all the variant misuses (disburse for disperse, dispersement for dispersal, and dispersement for disbursement) at “Stage 1” of their language change index: “rejected.” So if you’re tempted, just…don’t.

There’s your answer on disperse and disburse. If you think these two words are potentially confusing now, it was arguably a worse situation in the past. In the 17th century, the words were sometimes spelled even more similarly, with only a one-letter difference (dispurse vs. disperse). At least contemporary spelling has improved slightly on that.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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