At Your Disposal
Some speakers, perhaps because of their familiarity with the word disposal in connection with trash, seem to have trouble with the polite idiom “at your disposal.”
For example, I saw this comment on a Yahoo forum: “If you are at their disposal, it is derogatory and demeaning.”
Disposal and its different forms descend from Latin disponere, “to set in different places, to arrange.” The verb has more than one meaning, including the following:
- to place or arrange things in a particular order
- to make fit or ready
- to make arrangements
- to get rid of
The noun disposal can mean the action of disposing of something. In the expression “at one’s disposal,” it means “the power or right to dispose of, make use of, or deal with as one pleases.” The notion that the person “at one’s disposal” is “under the command of another” is doubtless the reason for objections to the expression by literalists.
Language has its polite conventions, and most people can tell the difference between convention and sincerity. Literalists, however, object to addressing a letter “Dear Sir” and signing it “Yours faithfully” on the grounds that the language is “too intimate” to use with a stranger.
Taking the quotation a little out of context, I’ll let Dr. Johnson explain the difference between sincerity and social convention:
you may say to a man, “Sir, I am your most humble servant.” You are not his most humble servant. You may say, “These are sad times…” You don’t mind the times. You tell a man, “I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.” You don’t care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society”
Speakers who object to putting a person at someone’s disposal can still use the idiom in regard to an object or a facility. Here are some examples of current usage:
Rest assured that Alotta Properties, Inc. will be at your disposal for as long as you need us.
Anecdotal evidence is great and it’s even better the more of it you have at your disposal.
But, my good sir, why do you come to me? Your motive is most excellent, but an honest employment is the last thing at my disposal.
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