Dispose. Disposed. Indisposed. WTF?

Nov. 30, 2023

English is a funny old language.
Take the word “dispose”— a slippery little eel if ever there was one.
On a recent visit to my local YMCA, I noticed this sign in the women’s bathroom:  
Attention YMCA Members and Guests
We are experiencing issues with our plumbing because of debris being disposed in the toilet.
To avoid this inconvenience to our members and guests we ask that no debris or garbage be disposed in the toilet.
Thank you for your understanding.
Our YMCA sign writer was attempting to use “dispose” as a verb, an action word. The meaning they were going for was “to get rid of by throwing away.”
Synonyms for dispose in this context include: discard, throw out, throw away, and the more colloquial chuck, dump and ditch.  
But here’s the tricky part. You can’t simply substitute “dispose” for “discard” (or “disposed” if you want to use the past tense). No, no, no. For reasons entirely unknown to me, you have to add “of”, as in “please do not dispose of debris in the toilet.”
If that weren’t complicated enough, dispose, like many words in the English language, wears multiple hats.
For example, in addition to meaning "throw away," “dispose of” can also mean “to kill or destroy.” Literally. As in, “The hit man disposed of the rival crime boss.”
On a less sinister note, “dispose of” can also mean “overcome.” As in, “Liverpool disposed of Fulham on Sunday.” (True fact. Yay Liverpool!)
Also, if you dispose of an issue or problem, you simply deal with it. Example: “Liverpool FC has still not disposed of my TV subscription problem.” (Also true. Sadly.)
But wait, there’s more.
Dispose can also mean "to consume food or drink quickly or enthusiastically."
Example: “The night before a game, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold likes to dispose of spaghetti Bolognese.” (Another true fact! And good choice, by the way, Trent.)
Synonyms for this meaning range from the mundane—eat and swallow—to the more colourful gobble up, wolf down, polish off.
Dispose can also mean "incline, persuade or make willing," as in, “She is not disposed to walking after dinner.” But note that if we want to use dispose in this way, we have to add “to” or “towards.” Again, don’t ask me why. It’s just so.
Yet another meaning claimed by our multi-talented little dispose is “to put in place, set in readiness, arrange in a particular position.” An example given by one of the online dictionaries for this meaning was, “Where shall we dispose the new knick knack?” Seriously? If Richard ever asked me where we should dispose something in our house, I would howl. You mean, I’d ask, where should we put it?
Enough to make your head swim, isn't it? Technically we’re not even done. Look up “dispose” for yourself, and you’ll find still more meanings. Not to mention a host of seemingly related words like:

  • Predispose: You’d be forgiven for thinking this means something like “get rid of things in advance of his getting rid of things.” (Like cleaning your house before your cleaner comes.) But it actually means “incline someone to a specified attitude, action, or condition.” But wait, didn’t we already have that covered by one of the meanings of “dispose” cited above? Oh well…
  • Indisposed: This means “slightly unwell.” Interesting fact about the opera: opera singers are never “slightly unwell”; they are always “indisposed.”
  • Disposal: This can be a verb (the act of throwing away or getting rid of something), an adjective (the disposal unit) or a noun (short form for garbage disposal). But don’t confuse the humble "disposal" with the phrase “at your disposal.” If I say, “The car is at your disposal,” that doesn’t mean the vehicle is waiting for you at your local garbage dump; it means it’s available for you to use whenever and however you like.

 Sigh. One little word, yet so much multiplicity.
With this much going on, it’s no wonder people make mistakes. I’ve even seen “dispose” confused with “despise.” Decades ago, when I worked as a cashier at our local pharmacy (my first real job as a high-school student), the boss posted a sign with this helpful advice: “Staff: When re-pricing items, please despise of the old price stickers.” I mean, don’t just dislike those old stickers – really get your hate on for them! (I'll give the boss this much: he knew enough to add the necessary "of.")
All this confusion can be avoided, by, well, avoiding the word “dispose.” I, for one, am not disposed to use dispose in a sentence anytime soon. For the common good, I suggest you follow suit.

Remember this: English is a tricky language. All the more reason to keep it simple. For greater clarity and understanding, aim to use common, familiar words rather than complex or obscure ones.

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