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Dissociate vs. disassociate

Dissociate and disassociate have the same definition—to remove from association or to cease associating. English reference books tend to recommended dissociate over disassociate. There’s no etymological reason for this, as the words are approximately the same age (though dissociate is probably a little older),1 2 and there is plenty of precedent in English for both forms. The preference for dissociate probably has to do with its brevity. In any case, disassociate has gained ground over the last half century or so. Though it’s still less common than dissociate, many writers seem to use the words interchangeably, and both forms appear often in edited publications.

This ngram, which graphs the use of dissociate and disassociate in English-language books published from 1800 to 2000, shows that disassociate became common slightly later than dissociate but has gained ground in recent decades.

Examples

As for large edited publications, The New York Times, for instance, appears to use both dissociate and disassociate, but disassociate appears more often:

That would be this Friday, during the third round of the $8.5-million match-play tournament sponsored by the first company to disassociate itself from Woods. [NYT]

Although the technology of the cars is not the highest in the world and is not the race’s main attraction, it is impossible to dissociate the technology from the human challenge. [NYT]


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The Wall Street Journal uses disassociate:

Having played so prominent a role in last October’s talks with Iran, the U.S. can’t easily disassociate itself from something broadly in line with that framework. [WSJ]

In the U.K., The Telegraph uses both words on a more or less equal basis:

The Tory brand … was so toxic that ordinary people wanted to disassociate themselves even from policies which they would otherwise approve of. [Telegraph]

After a difficult first year, the president is trying to dissociate himself from complex bills.  [Telegraph]

The Guardian prefers dissociate:

Careful to dissociate himself from backward-looking nostalgia, he argued for an open and renewable sense of national identity. [Guardian]

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Comments

  1. Interesting stuff. I was checking this, as I thought it was dissociate, but wasn’t convinced.  Imagine my surprise to discover on another site that “The difference, according to at least one dictionary, is the age of the two verbs.The verb “disassociate” originated in the period of 1595 to 1605.The verb “dissociate” originated in the period of 1605 to 1615.”So I am none the wiser.  It seems it’s a case of “you pays your money and takes your choice”

    • Thank you. Your comment inspired us to revisit this post, and we have updated with links to the OED entries with the earliest known instances of both words. “Dissociate” is actually from the middle 16th century. But anyway, neither word was used widely until the 19th century.

  2. Dwight Clough says:

    I had been told that when speaking of patients with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) it is correct to say that they “dissociate,” but incorrect to say that they “disassociate.”

  3. Tony Wilson says:

    Please consider revising the following: “This ngram … shows that dissociate became common slightly later than disassociate but has gained ground in recent decades.” The ngram shows no such thing. I think you mean to say the opposite.

  4. Chris Johnston says:

    It would make sense to me to use “disassociate” specifically when there is a contextually relevant and known event of association having been formed, and “dissociate” when the association in question has been of indefinite duration or not contextually relevant. for example, “after discovering some questionable ethical practices, we decided to disassociate ourselves with the new firm” vs. “because she could no longer bear their intolerant views, she decided to dissociate herself from her family altogether”.

    • BigJimDandy says:

      I’ve always felt there was a distinction, too. To me, it seems nicer to use ‘dissociate’ when the context is a person or people separating from a particular group, or society in general: “the patient has become severely dissociated”. ‘Disassociate’ feels like it could be applied more broadly, covering inanimate objects or concepts as well as people: “she was able to disassociate her aversion to antisemitism and her love of Wagner’s music”.

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