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Dissing 'disconnect'

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April September 15, 2008 01:42 PM

Carrie and friends were surprised by L.A.'s scenes -- and sounds.

Marc McGarry e-mails to ask about a noun that seems all wrong: "Lots of people speak these days about 'a disconnect' between this and that. … What's wrong with 'disconnection'?"

Nothing is wrong with disconnection, the noun of the 18th and 19th centuries -- except maybe that it's a little bit long. But the 20th-century noun, disconnect, seems to have arisen separately from telephone company usage -- or so the OED's early citations suggest.

The first sense is "an act or instance of disconnecting; a break of (esp. electrical or telephone) connection." The evidence:

1951 N.Y. Times 22 Dec. 15/1 They were not liable when local law enforcement agencies provided information upon which a disconnect order was based. 1958 Los Angeles Times 19 Aug. B4/2 Now if someone would only invent a telephone that would sift out unwanted calls with a disconnect on the first ring. 1987 E. H. J. PALLETT Aircraft Electr. Syst. (ed. 3) ii. 40 When a disconnect has taken place, the indicator button is released from magnetic attraction.
Then there's sense 2, "a complete lack of understanding, agreement, or consistency; a discrepancy":
1983 N.Y. Times 17 June B6/5 There is a total, absolute disconnect between the Administration and the Congress as to what the armed forces are to do. 1993 Coloradoan (Fort Collins) 16 Jan. A8/5 Experts on the presidency routinely talk about there being a ‘disconnect’ or ‘disengagement’ between what candidates promise on the campaign trail and what they say and do once they are elected. 2002 Business Week 5 Aug. 54/1 In a disturbing disconnect, Stanley Furniture Co ... has seen furniture sales slide even as the housing industry has continued to boom.

Me, I experienced a disconnect over disconnect back in 2000, when an episode of "Sex and the City" set in Los Angeles showed Carrie hearing the word for the first time. "Disconnect?" she asked wonderingly. Even in a series with few pretensions to plausibility, I didn't buy the notion that a New York writer would be learning this word only in 2000, and from a Los Angeles hustler at that. See that first citation, dated 1951? That's the New York Times, deploying disconnect seven years ahead of the L.A. Times. Would it take a Carrie Bradshaw 49 years to catch up with it? I don't think so.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column “The Word” since 1997. E-mail her at

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