Too Many Shades of Disheveled?

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A word’s original meaning often expands over time. For example, take decimate, from Latin “to take a tenth.” The element dec is from decem, the Latin word for ten. One meaning was “to tithe,” but the sense that has given us the English word related to destruction is from a Roman military practice:

To select by lot and put to death one in every ten of (a body of soldiers guilty of mutiny or other crime): a practice in the ancient Roman army, sometimes followed in later times.

From this specific meaning, decimate has expanded to mean “to destroy or remove a large proportion of; to subject to severe loss, slaughter, or mortality.”

Mad cow disease decimated English cattle herds in the 1980s and 1990s

The newspaper has been decimated by market pressures

Supreme Court’s Latest Ruling Could Decimate Public Sector Unions

Occasionally I come across comments from persnickety purists who insist that decimate must be used only in a context that has something to do with the number ten, and I shake my head. Meanings shift. They expand.

However, when it comes to the word dishevel, I find myself slipping into the ranks of the persnickety.

Like the dec in decimate, the shevel in dishevel has a Latin origin: capillus (hair).

English disheveled (Br. dishevelled), the past participle of a verb that originally meant, “To loosen and throw the hair about in disorder,” derives from the French word for “head of hair”: chevelure. French descheveler meant, ”to disarrange the hair.”

Borrowed into English with the meaning, “hair hanging loose and thrown about in disorder,” the word came to denote a disordered personal appearance that included clothing.

In its original sense of messy hair, the word has become indispensable to describe British PM Boris Johnson:

Dishevelled Boris Johnson returns to face Commons rebellion—The Irish Times

Don’t be deceived by his scruffy appearance, the Tory leadership hopeful’s strategic dishevelment is his Trojan horse. —The Financial Times

At Eton, AB Johnson became “Boris” – rather posh, very English, somewhat eccentric and the deeply distinctive, deliberately dishevelled character we know now.—BBC News

By extension, dishevel can also apply to an individual’s clothing and living environment.

a spirit in disheveled clothes lingering on the side of the road and waiting to hitch a ride.—

The police looked into the house from a sliding glass door and saw various boxes of electronic equipment and the house appeared somewhat disheveled.

Figuratively, dishevel can describe a person’s inner self:

Frankenstein’s outward poise and elegance masks his disheveled soul within.

The disheveled mind must be eschewed from the early years; the cultivated mind is the orderly one.

A note in the entry in Merriam-Webster points out that disheveled has been used for things other than hair since the early seventeenth century, but the word is so wonderfully specific, it seems a waste to use it to describe something that doesn’t have hair or feathers or some type of excrescence that can be ruffled. I question the following uses of the word.

[a project] that would have remade the disheveled community . . .

I imagine a community made up of people with messy hair, but that’s not the intended meaning. The relevant project was to redevelop a run-down neighborhood.

Other factors such as oil development . . . have completely disheveled the wildlife and vegetation populations.

I can see how oil development might decimate wildlife and vegetation populations, but dishevel them?

The queue meanders to the west of the hotel entrance, past disheveled and crumbling statuary . . .

Statuary, even crumbling statuary, would have its hair in place.

Dishevel and disheveled, like rumpled, tousled, and unkempt, are closely associated with hair and personal appearance. In a less personal context, perhaps another word could serve instead of disheveled to indicate a state of untidiness. A few possibilities: chaotic, cluttered, confused, disarranged, disordered, jumbled, littered, messy, untidy, run-down.

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2 thoughts on “Too Many Shades of Disheveled?”

  1. Hi Maeve, I loved this post, especially since I found myself explaining the meaning of decimate to my teenage children only yesterday. I was happy to learn that I am a bit persnickery – I didn’t know that word.
    Going further into persnickeriness: what do you think about the growing use of ‘mitigation’ in ‘greenhouse gas mitigation’? I thought we had to ‘reduce’ emissions in order to ‘mitigate’ climate change, and ’emission mitigation’ sounds strange to me, but I am not a native English speaker so I’m not sure. What is your opinion?

  2. Marlies Schuttelaar,
    Welcome to the realm of the persnickety.
    I suppose that the verb “mitigate” could be seen as a synonym of “reduce,” but it carries the connotation of reducing or lessening something cruel, painful, or harmful, whereas “reduce” means simply to lessen anything, good or bad. The wording, “reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change” sounds more appropriate to my ear as well.

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