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shameless pleading

Desperate / Disparate

Let’s call the whole thing off.

Dear Word Detective: My husband and I were wondering about the words “desperate” and “disparate.” In the dictionary, “desperate” comes from the Latin “desperare” meaning “no hope,” and is related to “despair,” and “disparate” comes from the Latin “disparare,” related to “separate.” Is there no connection at all way back there? They are so close and yet so far. — Doris Render.

“So close and yet so far.” That would be a good summary of the four years I spent in Latin class. I started out taking Latin in junior high school because French looked too scary, but then I landed in a school where Latin was a required subject, and my goose was cooked. Latin has four conjugations for verbs and five declensions for nouns. But by the end of Year Three, my brain was full and I kinda gave up. I basically never learned the fifth declension endings, and, in fact, used to confuse them with the fourth conjugation forms, which made absolutely no sense at all. I’m amazed that I survived Latin class still able to speak English.

So to say that I see your point would be an understatement. Latin has tons of words that bear an infuriating resemblance to each other, which is probably why there’s never been a Latin version of Wheel of Fortune. “Desperate” and “disparate” also, as many people pronounce them,  happen to sound very much alike. Or maybe it’s just me. In any case, I don’t think I’ve ever said  “disparate” aloud and not had someone think I said “desperate.” This is why I tend to stick with “diverse” and “various.”

“Disparate” does mean “dissimilar,” “unlike,” “distinct,” “diverse” or “varied.” Two things can be “disparate” from each other, or an assemblage of things or people can be “disparate” as a whole (“The job ad was so vague that it was answered by a disparate procession that included a bartender, two lawyers and a mime”). “Disparate” is derived from the Latin “disparatus,” which is the past participle of “disparare,” a verb meaning “to divide or separate.” That “disparare” combines the prefix “dis,” in this case signifying “apart,” with “parare,” meaning “to prepare.” And here things get interesting. “Disparate” doesn’t mean “prepared apart,” exactly. It means “unlike, dissimilar.” And that’s because the modern meaning of “disparate” was influenced by a very similar but completely separate Latin word, “dispar,” which means “unequal, unlike.” Suddenly I don’t feel so bad about not mastering those fifth declension endings.

“Desperate,” on the other hand, comes from the Latin “desperare,” meaning “to lose hope, to have no hope” or “to despair” (“despair,” in fact, is simply “desperare” filtered through Old French). “Desperare” was, in turn, a combination of the prefix “de,” which reverses the action of a verb (“decompose,” “demagnetize,” etc.), plus “sperare,” meaning “to hope,” giving us something close to “unhope.” The root of that “sperare,” interestingly, is “spes,” a Latin noun meaning “hope.” “Spes” is one of only four fifth declension Latin nouns not ending in “ies,” a fact which I remember because I got it wrong on a test in 11th grade. Hey, did my old Latin teacher put you up to asking this question?

When “desperate” first showed up in English in the 15th century, it was an adjective meaning, when applied to people, “having given up all hope” or, applied to situations, “leaving  scant room for hope; very serious or dangerous.” It wasn’t until late in the 15th century that the modern meaning of “desperate,” that of “driven to recklessness by anguish or despair” or “involving great risk of failure with little chance of success” (“Bob made a desperate break for the door when a game of Charades was announced”) became standard.

So “desperate” and “disparate” do strongly resemble each other in form today, but the further you trace them back, the less they have in common.

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