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shameless pleading


Well, work does make me sick.

Dear Word Detective: I was waiting for a call at work yesterday, so I sent an email asking if someone could take a message if I was indisposed. Immediately, I got an email from my older boss asking if I was alright. Puzzled, I looked up “indisposed” in the dictionary and learned that it meant either “ill” or “unwilling.” I’ve always used it as a synonym for “busy.” When I asked my similarly-aged friends, they also thought it meant “busy.” Has the meaning of “indisposed” changed over the span of a generation? — Kate Robinson.

This has turned out to be a very interesting question. My initial reaction was “not that I know of,” but a quick hop, skip and jump through the internet indicates that I might have been a bit hasty, and that “indisposed” does indeed seem to be mutating in an unexpected direction. For the moment, however, it would probably be wise to cease using it to mean “busy” or “tied up,” since to most people it makes you sound either chronically dyspeptic or a bit like Bartleby the Scrivener (whose response to any request, in Herman Melville’s 1856 novella of that name, was “I would prefer not to”).

The root of the adjective “indisposed” is the verb “to dispose,” constructed from the Latin prefix “dis” (apart, away) plus “ponere,” meaning “to place.” The initial sense of “dispose” in English was “to arrange properly,” and this expanded into a variety of senses including “to get rid of” and, more importantly for our purposes here, “to put someone into a favorable mood to do something.” This sense gave us “disposed” meaning “thinking positively about something” or “inclined or willing to do something” (“Larry wouldn’t lend me money, but he was disposed to drive me to the bank”). “Disposed” also has been used since the 14th century in the sense of “in good health.”

“Indisposed” simply tacked the prefix “in” (here meaning “not”) to the front of “disposed” and first appeared in print in English in the early 15th century with the meaning of “not properly put in order; disorganized or unprepared,” in particular with reference to being unprepared for death (a sense now, thankfully, obsolete). Several other senses, also now obsolete, developed in the 15th century, including “of an evil disposition.” By the early 17th century, however, we had developed the two modern senses of “indisposed,” that of “mildly unwell” (“To take the indispos’d and sickly fit, for the sound man,” King Lear, Shakespeare, 1608) and “unwilling or averse to” (“Hardhearted, and indisposed unto Acts of bounty,” 1665).

The emerging use of “indisposed” to mean “busy” or “unavailable” seems to be an extension of the long-standing use of “indisposed” as a euphemism employed in cases where the truth would be either embarrassing (the person is in the bathroom, for instance) or socially offensive (the person simply doesn’t wish to see or talk to you). The fact that “indisposed” is a fairly snooty-sounding word has also lent to its use as a sarcastic or humorous euphemism for being drunk, being absent from work for another reason (such as having been fired) and even for being in jail. Such humorous use of “indisposed” is fairly common in films and the more literate TV sitcoms, where the humor usually relies on “indisposed” being a substantial understatement of the seriousness of the actual situation (e.g., the “indisposed” party is dead and stuffed in the closet).

It seems that if a term is used frequently enough in popular culture as sarcasm, folks will sometimes begin to regard it as a simple synonym, which is apparently what is happening with “indisposed.” Rather than being used as a vague excuse, implying temporary illness, for not doing something or talking to someone, it’s now being used to mean simply “busy or unavailable.” Given a few more decades, this may become an accepted use of the word, but for the moment, as the reaction of your boss illustrated, it’s probably better to stick to a simple “tied up.”

5 comments to Indisposed

  • CMW

    My impression was exactly the same as yours, used it last weekend in a text message with the intent of implying “tied up elsewhere”, I suppose I remember my father using it this way.
    The recipient assumed I was ill, and I was surprised to learn the actual definition.
    Perhaps we are just decades ahead of our time.

  • David

    Sorry, but I am old enough to know the definition has always been sick or ill (“slightly ill” is the definition per my 1966 edition dictionary), but the word has been misused for just as long by people trying to appear more educated than they apparently were.

    • SSG

      The only constant in any language is change, be it morphological, phonological, semantic, or syntactic. In any language, and specifically in English, semantics (the meaning of words) are constantly evolving such that a word takes on a new or different meaning than originally conceived. Sometimes the new meaning is related to or derived from the word’s pre-existing meaning(s); other times, the relationship is far more tenuous. Nonetheless, semantic changes become accepted with increased usage and the passage of time.

      The rules of language, including the meanings ascribed to its words, are not prescriptive (i.e., how language must be used) so much as they are descriptive (how language is actually being used). The word “gay” is but one illustrative example. In any case, from the perspective of linguistics and dictionary publishers, it’s not about the “correct” definition of a word, but about how a word is being used and commonly understood by the native/fluent speakers of that language. If it were about “correct” vs. “incorrect” definitions, dictionaries would never need to publish updated editions. But perhaps that’s why you still refer to your 1966 edition dictionary 47 years later. So in your eyes, I suppose calling my newfangled computer accessory a “mouse” would be to misuse a word that, in your 1966 dictionary, is probably only defined to mean a rodent. But in this case, it’s not that my usage is wrong, but rather that your dictionary’s definition of the word fails to reflect modern usage.

  • Cam

    I had assumed that people were confusing ‘indisposed’ with ‘otherwise disposed’, although I am now doubting my understanding of the latter. I thought that was the one that meant ‘busy’, in the sense of just plainly ‘doing something else’.

  • Donna

    Although David will probably never see this, I find his haughty comment a bit offensive, as “indisposed” has not always meant “slightly unwell”, as the word detective clearly states. Even now, it also means “unwilling”. Apparently his education ended in 1966, and he is not open to the inevitable evolution of our language. I believe people have simply misunderstood its use and have not misused it in an effort to sound more educated than they are, as David suggests.

    I also misunderstood “indisposed” to mean busy with something we don’t talk about in polite conversation, such as using the restroom. I have always heard it used in the phrase “indisposed at the moment” and always in response to a person who has called asking to speak to someone on the phone or who has made an unexpected visit to someone’s home. In this context, I don’t feel that many other people’s and my own conclusion is illogical. As others have said, perhaps this meaning will become accepted in the future.

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