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Language Arts

Disburse vs Disperse



What is the difference between disperse and disburse? In this article we compare disburse vs disperse, give definitions of both disperse and disburse, and give you tips on when it is proper to use disperse or disburse.

If we disburse their bonuses, maybe the angry crowd will disperse. Although the words disburse and disperse look rather similar and sound very similar, they have different roots and meanings. Unlike with most pairs easily confused words, in this case, knowing the etymology may add to the difficulty, so this article will help clarify those issues, as well as meaning differences for you.

Disburse

Disburse is a transitive verb that means “to pay out.” Here is an example:

On Friday, the lender disbursed the funds for my student loan, so I expect that the college will receive notification within a matter of days.

Disburse is pronounced /dihs BURSS/.

Disperse

Disperse is both a transitive verb (one that takes an object) and an intransitive verb (one that functions without an object). It’s meanings range from “break up” to “ separate” to “drive away” to scatter” to “share or distribute.” Here are examples:

Transitive: The gentleman speaking quite loudly in the park gazebo insisted that he was merely dispersing knowledge to seekers of wisdom, not disturbing the peace.

Intransitive: To restart a rugby game, the players on each side gather in a standardized form called a scrum (short for scrummage), engage with each other, competing for the ball, and then disperse across the field.

Disperse is pronounced /dihs PURSS/. To gain an idea of how very minute the difference in pronunciation between the two words, try saying them alternately a few times. Then try saying several times:

The brothers dispersed the crowd after the treasurer disbursed the funds.

See how similar they sound?

Etymology of Disburse and Disperse

Both disburse and disperse came into English through Old French and from Latin. Disperse comes from the Old French form disperser, which is from the Latin dis- + spargere, which means “scatter,” so scattering out from.

Disburse is from the Old French form desborser, which is from the Latin dis- + borse, which means “purse,” so the action of taking money out of the purse. And here’s where the confusion can come in: it’s possible to assume that the root of disperse is purse because of the p, which creates the wrong identification. A better idea, etymologically speaking, to get the words disburse and disperse lined up with their meanings is to think of a college bursar, who is in charge of taking in and dispensing funds.

If you can successfully match the meaning of “pay out” with disburse by thinking of a bursar, then it will follow that disperse must match with the other meanings•those related to spreading or scattering.