May
02
2013

dissemble

Posted in Word of the Day by admin

dih sem b@l
transitive verb
definition 1: to disguise or hide behind a false semblance; conceal the true nature or state of.
example: She dissembled her real motives for visiting her dying uncle.
definition 2: to pretend of make a false show of; feign.
example: She dissembled madness to escape punishment.

intransitive verb
definition: to conceal one’s true motives, opinions, or feelings by a pretense.
example: The spy must dissemble, must pretend to embrace a different opinion, laugh about a forbidden joke, must tell one himself.”

Dissemble vs. Disassemble

It is often remarked, sometimes bemoaned, that young people get all their news from “The Daily Show, the “fake news” show on the Comedy Channel. But Jon Stewart’s writers sometimes monitor word usage as well, especially when it offers an opportunity to mock a public figure. In this excerpt from a show that aired a number of years ago, Jon Stewart catches President G.W. Bush in a video clip, confusing two similar-sounding words:

JON STEWART, host, “The Daily Show”: President Bush in particular was scornful of the Amnesty International report.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word of — in the allegations by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that have been trained in some instances to disassemble (sic), that means not tell the truth. (LAUGHTER)
STEWART: Actually, Mr. President, ” dissemble ” means to not tell the truth. Disassemble is what we did to Iraq.

“Disassemble” means “to take something apart.” Stewart not only calls out Bush’s use of the wrong word, but also provides a definition of “disassemble” (“what we did to Iraq,” i.e., we took it apart) that strikes a blow at the moral authority of the President.

“Dissemble”‘s resemblance to “disassemble” can indeed make its meaning difficult to remember. Analyzing the structure of each word can help.

Dis*assemble is a derivation of the verb “assemble.” The prefix “dis-” means “to undo or reverse” the action denoted by the base, that is, verb to which the prefix is attached.

Dis*semble is trickier to decode. Even though “semble” is an English word, it is almost obsolete and not recognized by most people. (Knowing French helps: “Sembler” in French is a common verb meaning “to seem.” ) “Re*semble” and “sembl*ance” are more frequent English words, however, from which we can infer that the meaning of “semble” is in the semantic vicinity of “seem, seeming” and “appear, appearance.” Definition 1 of “dissemble” above in fact uses the word “semblance”: “to disguise or hide behind a false semblance [a false appearance].”

This might be a good place to stop, for trying to trace the complete etymology of “dissemble” would soon get us in a tangle. We would discover, for example, that “semble” in “assemble” and in “dissemble” is actually the same root. We would also have to confront the fact that “dissemble” seems to have come into being around the year 1500 as an alternate form of “dissimulate.” And we would have trouble pinpointing which meaning of the prefix “dis-” is being used in “dissemble”: “dis-” may here function only as an intensifier of the verb base. It certainly is not the “dis-” of “disassemble.” But it is conceivable that it means “apart or away.” So for the practical end of being able to distinguish “disassemble” from “dissemble,” you need read no further than the end of the previous paragraph.

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