Dear Word Detective: What happened to the relationship between “appoint” and “disappoint”? They seem to have become estranged. — Doris Render.

Sad, isn’t it? I remember when you’d see them strolling hand-in-hand through the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon, texting each other. At least I assume they were texting each other. I wouldn’t know because, brace yourself, I’ve never texted anyone in my life. No, I’m not a neo-luddite. I’ve just developed the knack of becoming bored with things before I’ve done them. Saves pots of time.

So, anyway, my understanding is that “appoint,” a basically positive word, just couldn’t take the negativity of “disappoint” any longer. “Appoint” is actually the older of the pair, first appearing in English in the late 14th century. We adopted “appoint” from the Old French word “apointer,” which in turn was formed on the phrase “a point,” meaning literally “to the point.” “Appoint” also inherited its main senses from the French “apointer.” The first was “to bring matters to a point; to agree,” Most of the uses associated with this sense are now obsolete, but we continue to use the sense of “agree on a time and place for a meeting, etc.” when we speak of a “doctor’s appointment” or an “appointed time and place.”

The second sense was a bit more forceful and less mutual, wherein “appoint” meant “to fix, declare or decree authoritatively.” This sense is used today mostly to mean “to ordain, nominate or establish” a person in a certain office or position, etc. (“The father was empowered to appoint persons of his own choice to be his children’s guardians,” 1883). The third major sense of “appoint” is “to put in suitable and orderly condition; to prepare,” now almost only encountered in the past participle form “appointed” (“Their several Lodgings, which were as well appointed as such a season would permit,” 1664).

“Disappoint” finally showed up in the early 16th century. Although the prefix “dis” in “disappoint,” as usual in English, means “not,” the story of “disappoint” is more than just a simple negation of “appoint” in its various senses. The source of “disappoint” was the French “desappointer,” which meant specifically “to undo an appointment; to deprive of an appointment, office or position; to remove from an office” that had been previously granted by official power (“A Monarch … hath power … to appoint or to disappoint the greatest officers,” 1586).

That specific “clear out your desk” sense of “disappoint” is now obsolete, but it had been quickly generalized and gave us our most common modern sense of the word, “to frustrate the desire or expectations of a person; to defeat a person in the fulfillment of their desire.” Today nearly anything that fails to live up to our hopes and expectations can be said to “disappoint” us (“Ormandy’s CBS album of the Berlioz Requiem.., of which I had high hopes, disappoints,” 1966).

The one other original sense of “appoint” which produced a parallel sense of “disappoint” is that of “agree on a time and place.” Although it often overlaps with the “let down” sense of “disappoint” outlined above, “disappoint” is also used to mean specifically “to break or fail to keep an appointment” or, more broadly, “to undo or frustrate anything previously agreed upon.” This sense does not necessarily imply the “frustrated desire” and emotional letdown of the other sense, only a rupture in an appointment which had been arranged and expected. So if you develop a cold and thereby “disappoint” our plan to go to a dinner theater presentation of “Cats” together, I may very well not feel personally “disappointed” at all.

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