I picked up a flyer today on computer loans while I was at the bank. It proudly proclaims that "MFCU can even disperse you loan funds directly to the Bookstore." What they meant, of course, is that the bank can disburse the funds to the bookstore. However, considering the much, much higher token frequency of "disperse" as compared to "disburse," it's not hard to understand how the error was made, especially when one takes into account that the unaspirated voiceless p in disperse it virtually indistinguishable from the voiced b in disburse to the average English speaker.
The title of this entry refers to the process by which words change in response to semantic opacity. In other words, a compound containing an unknown word that resembles a known word that fits the context undergoes change so that the phrase makes more sense to speakers. One of the more useful examples Wikipedia offers is "chaise lounge" from "chaise longue," the latter a French phrase which literally means "long chair." To English speakers used to lounging around on these pieces of furniture, it made more sense that this would be called a "chaise lounge." While disperse and disburse have fairly different meanings when taken very narrowly, they are not so different as to prevent some sort of folk etymology from working its magic here. After all, disperse has the sense of giving out or releasing something, and disburse is the act of giving out or releasing money for a specific purpose. That combined with the infrequency of the verb "disburse" in everyday speech will most likely end in tragedy for the latter verb.
Jerome Stueart interview (pt. 3)
3 months ago