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The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Get Thee to a Dictionary

A sentence in last week’s article included the phrase “disrespect or disregard you.” In short order we received mail questioning whether this use of disrespect was appropriate on a website promoting proper grammar. “Are you sure that you are okay with using ‘disrespect’ as a verb?” asked one reader.

Most of the angst over disrespect stems from the word’s popularity with putative thugs. In the words of English scholar Paul Brians in Common Errors in English Usage, “The hip-hop subculture revived the use of ‘disrespect’ as a verb.” Say no more. To many language watchdogs, hip-hop is a worst-case scenario for where English is headed.

An online search seems to confirm this. “My vote? That is not a word,” states one armchair linguist. “No one should use it.” An iffy Internet dictionary called Wiktionary (compiled by anonymous contributors with undocumented credentials) has this to say: “ ‘Disrespect’ is not a verb. ‘Respect’ can be used as a noun or a verb, however ‘disrespect’ should only be used as a noun.”

But note that Brians said “revived.” We consulted our brand-new 2014 Webster’s New World (Fifth Edition) and found disrespect listed as a transitive verb meaning “to have or show lack of respect for.”

Hold it, you say. Webster’s is notoriously permissive. Perhaps its editors’ inclusion of disrespect as a verb merely reflects the company’s longtime policy of publishing a nonjudgmental, up-to-date record of how people communicate.

So we turned to Random House’s 1968 American College Dictionary, and sure enough, there it was: “to regard or treat without respect.” We also found disrespect listed as a verb in the oldest dictionary in our office, a 1941 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary.

Our last stop was the Oxford English Dictionary (which has been called “the ultimate authority on the English language”). Here we discovered that disrespect as a verb first appeared in print around 1614—four centuries ago.

We believe that those who are serious about language matters should have at least two dictionaries within easy reach: a contemporary one—many are available online—but also one that is at least thirty years old. (You can get one if you really want it.) Although having your own Oxford English Dictionary would also be nice, its twenty gargantuan volumes take up a lot of space … and cost a lot of money. However, the Online Etymology Dictionary ( is a terrific alternative.

This episode proves once again that what people feel to be indisputable about proper English all too often says more about them and their biases than about the issue at hand.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

11 responses to “Get Thee to a Dictionary”

  1. Brian A. Green says:

    Kudos to you on the defense of the word “Disrespect.” Your title is so aptly written for this article that I just had to laugh after reading the comments against the words supposed misuse.

    I too looked up the word in my 1967 Random House Dictionary of the English Language; and sure enough, there was the symbol (v.) on page 415, middle column, about half way down (for those that wish to research my research). Too funny.


  2. Michael P. says:

    To me, this was kind of a “duh” discussion. “I respect you; you disrespect me.” What could be more clear? Grammatically, the use of the negative prefix “dis-“ should not provide any reason in and of itself for the form of a word to be changed from a verb to just a noun. No more than “These facts prove it; those facts disprove it.”

    You are right. The problem is the thug culture where people think respect is automatic, rather than something to be earned. I’ll get off the soapbox now…. Thanks for all your work.

  3. Mike G. says:

    Concerning your latest newsletter, referring to “disrespecting” as a verb, you state there is some dissent.That dissent should pale in comparison to the dissention you should be getting when you refer to those associated with the “hip hop culture” as thugs!

    “Say no more. To many language watchdogs, hip-hop is a worst-case scenario for where English is headed.”

    Hip hop is a kind of music, and there are many types of it. To generalize that those who are part of that culture are inherently bad at grammar is simply wrong. Some types of hip hop, specifically that referred to as “gangsta rap” do take liberties with English, but the oversimplification of the musical genre as well as the rude inference that those connected to it are thugs is, well, disrespectful.

    • We did not put “putative” in the first sentence by accident. It changes the nature of the epithet and seriously mitigates your point. We intended the final paragraph to establish that we disagree with those “language watchdogs” mentioned in the second paragraph.

      Our article was a condemnation of narrow, biased thinking, not a justification for it. When we describe a prevalent viewpoint, we are not necessarily sympathizing with it.

      We appreciate your passion for the subject, and we do appreciate that you took the time to write to us (using good grammar, nonetheless; a rarity).

  4. Allan G. says:

    More evidence to add to your collection.

    My American Heritage Dictionary, 1969, supports disrespect as a verb but The Australian Oxford Paperback Dictionary, 1989, shows only the noun definition.

    I bought the latter, while working for the U.S. division of an Australian company, after I got upset with my counterpart in Australia who said he had tabled an important issue I was pursuing. I was annoyed because I thought he meant postpone. Our Australian president laughingly told me it meant to submit the matter at a meeting, the definition supported by this dictionary. What could be more opposite than these two versions?

    Live and learn.

  5. WesT says:

    I was offended by your reference to Wikitionary. As a sister project to Wikipedia, it is a highly sought after source for valid information.

    What you said was, “An iffy Internet dictionary called Wiktionary (compiled by anonymous contributors with undocumented credentials) has this to say: “ ‘Disrespect’ is not a verb. ‘Respect’ can be used as a noun or a verb, however ‘disrespect’ should only be used as a noun.”” But upon checking the Wikitionary site itself, I find your quote was on the TALK page of disrespect, so it is not what Wikitionary has to say, rather one person’s opinion on the matter. The talk page is a page where various editors are allowed to discuss the relative merits of the entry. Any comments there are intended for those interested in helping keep Wikitionary current and accurate, not for public consumption, certainly not to be quoted as if Wikitionary said it.

    If you look at the main entry for disrespect, you’ll find that the public definition matches almost exactly your findings in the various dictionaries you quote.

    disrespect (third-person singular simple present disrespects, present participle disrespecting, simple past and past participle disrespected)
    (transitive) To show a lack of respect to someone or something.

    Just wanted you to know that Wikitionary agrees with you even if you don’t agree with it.


    • CFWhitman says:

      I must say that I agree. The quote did not come from Wiktionary, but from a comment at Wiktionary. I don’t think the article’s author or publisher would appreciate all the comments here as being attributed to the article. In fact, that comment at Wiktionary is immediately disputed by another comment. The text of the dictionary is accurate.

      It’s true that Wiktionary and Wikipedia can be subject to inaccurate information or misinformation. There are a few subjects where even the consensus that they rely on is guilty of this. However, the majority of inaccuracies on the site are quickly corrected.

  6. Advocatus Diaboli says:

    Poor usage in the 17th century does not make for proper usage in the 21st century.

  7. Maggiechristina says:

    Well…. I DISRESPECT YOU in the thuggiest of ways….for criticizing English teachers who cringe when their students use thugspeak in class……

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