Dissatisfied and unsatisfied

Have you ever thought about the difference between “dissatisfied” and “unsatisfied”? Neither have I. At least, not until I was flipping through my copy of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage recently.
If this book has a regular shtick, it’s debunking popular language prohibitions. For example: have you ever heard it’s wrong to split an infinitive? Well, this book will give you an earful on that one, making it quite clear there’s no such rule.

So I was more than a little surprised recently when I was thumbing through the usage guide and saw this: “dissatisfied, unsatisfied” Though ‘dissatisfied and unsatisfied appear to be synonyms, there are distinctions evident in the usage examples in the Merriam-Webster files.” (By the way, that’s what most language authorities base their opinions on: usage examples. That’s what academics do, too.)

The guide continues: “These examples show that ‘unsatisfied’ is more frequently used to modify nonhuman terms (such as ambition, debts, curiosity, demands, claims) than human ones and that in all instances the meaning is generally of something or someone being ‘unfulfilled’ or ‘unappeased.’”
The examples the book gives include published excerpts saying “… the curiosity was unsatisfied” and “a large unsatisfied demand for education.”

Then the book gives examples of dissatisfied, showing how it usually applies to people or groups and means “not pleased or gratified.” “Dissatisfied landowners stopped action” is one of the book’s examples.

Merriam-Webster’s usage guide makes clear that there’s some crossover. And a look at dictionary definitions proves there’s some overlap.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines “dissatisfied” as “not satisfied; displeased.” This dictionary doesn’t contain a definition for “unsatisfied.” So we have to think of it as a form of “satisfy” negated by the prefix “un.”

Because “un” can negate something, “unsatisfied” also means “not satisfied,” just as “dissatisfied” does.
According to this dictionary, the two words are overlapping. So it makes it that much more interesting that, in common usage — at least as far as Merriam-Webster’s usage guide can see — they’re not.

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