At Your Disposal

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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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6 thoughts on “At Your Disposal”

  1. Quotation: 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.

    Well, we have plenty of people who do not understand idiomatic phrases in English or any other language. We have some of them here who object to common idioms.

    Actually, I do quibble with the word “doubtless” in the above quotation. I think that “at your disposal” means that I will do anything for you, WITHIN REASON, and I will do it without objection as far as I can.
    Maeve, I think that you have omitted the part about “within reason” or “barring illegal activities”.

    Actions like murder, bank robbery, rape, embezzlement, and assault and battery are NOT included in “at your disposal”. I will object, and I will not do those things. I will not pretend to be you and take the SAT for you, but if you, your mother, or your father are stranded somewhere in a broken-down car, I will move mountains to go rescue you or find someone who will. If you are hungry, I will feed you, and if you are cold, I will give you my jacket. If you need a doctor or a dentist, then I will find one for you.

    I might even eat some Green Eggs and Ham for someone, in return for the favors the he/she has done for me.

  2. “At you disposal” is merely another way of saying “at your service”, and I can’t see a reason for objecting to either. We could use a lot more of this attitude on our planet.

    The meaning is not exactly the same as, “You slightest wish is my command.”

  3. The extent of “service” expressed in the use of “at your disposal” is many times defined in the sentence itself. “If you can think of anything we haven’t tried yet to locate the perpetrator, I am at your disposal”. The receiver would understand that the speakers “disposability” is limited to the prerequisite of he/she (the receiver) being able to “think of anything we haven’t tried yet to locate the perpetrator” being met. The implication is that the speaker was volunteering to be at the receivers disposal for activities limited to those associated with finding the perp.

  4. While it is clear that idioms hang around in language long after the original intent has changed, I cannot see this as a justification for its use just anywhere. I mean, I do not say to my wife ‘don’t worry your pretty little head about it’ no matter how many people might argue for the phrase on the basis of social convention. So, I do not particularly use ‘at your disposal’ because I am a literal person, but because other people are and I have no wish to be grouped with those people who want “service” rather than responsible action.

  5. I’ve used the phrase to indicate, gently, that I am putting my time on hold for the person, and will pause other activities until they either give me an instruction, or tell me they don’t need my help.

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