untangle and disentangle

So, there I was, enjoying a nice evening of nothing while on (AmE) vacation/(BrE) holiday, when Dave Summers of Ohio tweeted me to ask:
Heard "disentangle" the other day. Is that perhaps BrE for "untangle"?
To which I replied, "No, it's AmE too". But then I wondered whether the rates of their use were different and I found that they were. Voilà! A Difference of the Day for my Twitter feed (which has been very sporadically updated while I've been on holiday/vacation as it gets hard to tell where one day starts and another ends). So, I tweeted:
AmE and BrE have both 'disentangle' and 'untangle'. But disentangle:untangle ratio = 2:3 in AmE and 3:1 in BrE.  (Source = COCA and BNC at Mark Davies' Corpora site.)
And I was all ready to call it a night when Gordon Hemsley of Georgia tweeted to say:
I actually think those words mean different things to me. Disentangle implies more than one thing; untangle can be 1.
...and while I thought he was probably right, I also know that it's very often the case that the stories we tell ourselves about how the differences between synonyms are often very different from how we actually use them. So, here I am researching this little thing at 1 in the morning instead of any of the other two things I have to do before bed or the opportunity to sleep that I really should take before restarting the academic term. Sigh-di-sigh-sigh-sigh.

Dictionaries don't tell us of any dialectal differences between these words, nor do they really mark Gordon's division of labo(u)r for the two words. The dictionaries I've looked at give two meanings for disentangle (or if not two meanings, then examples of both of these meanings): (1) to free something from its entanglement with something else, (2) to bring out of a tangled state, unravel.

I've started my investigation by looking at cases where the word from occurs within five words after the base forms of the verbs (untangle, disentangle). If you're removing the tangle in one thing, you probably wouldn't have a from--we don't untangle a knot from itself, we just untangle a knot.  So the from examples can be assumed to involve removing a tangle of two things (the first sense of the word, above). An example from COCA:

He managed to disentangle himself from his kayak before it was pulled into the hole.

In both dialects, there is a strong preference for using disentangle with from. So, more than 1/3 of  disentangles are closely followed by a from, and far fewer untangles have a from after them.

disentangle ... from36% [76/210]37% [28/103]
untangle... from11% [35/319]15% [4/26]

So far AmE and BrE aren't looking very different. The next question is how they act when only one thing is involved, and a tangle is removed from it. To look at that, I've looked at all the forms of each verb (i.e. untangle, untangled, untangling, etc.) followed by a/an/the and then a singular noun.
per 100 million wordsCOCA (AmE)BNC (BrE)
disentangl* a(n)/the sg-N 820
untangl* a(n)/the sg-N2612

This is far from a thorough investigation of these two words, but what the numbers here seem to be saying is that AmE has a strong preference for untangle with singulars and that this isn't shared by BrE. This is to say that Gordon's hunch was right in terms of how these words work in AmE and that the BrE use that Dave heard probably struck him as strange because it wasn't obeying the untangle-goes-with-singulars preference. Note that these differences are about preferences and probabilities of the uses of two senses of the words, not about one word (or even one sense of a word) being 'British' or 'American'. But they're still differences.

You know, this was an awful lot like work! I've only got three more days off.* Enough of this!**

* Vacation/holiday is, of course, irrelevant, since the blog isn't part of the job that I'm taking a break from. As my hobby, the blog is, I suppose, what I should be doing on my holiday/vacation. You know, instead of getting sleep or spending time with my family. Priorities, eh?

** Except to tell you that the 'fight with' sense of tangle is originally AmE. Just because I can't stop telling you things.


  1. Interesting. I could tell they were different, but I could not tell how. Then again, I didn't worry about it until you brought it up! Thanks, anyway.

  2. US: I would untangle hair, or yarn. I would disentangle from a complicated situation. Never thought of them as synonymous.

  3. I'm with Roger. Untangle is for a physical thing, like the chain of a necklace, hair, string, yarn, etc. Disentangle is more for metaphorical things like situations, family relationships, etc.

  4. I looked for differences in literal v metaphorical meanings, and could find none. Both had lots of each in AmE.

  5. it's interesting that you couldn't find a difference, because when i read your twitter post, i was thinking about replying almost exactly what Roger and Cathy said above. Could it be a regional distinction? I'm a mid-atlantic US resident.

  6. I can't imagine there would be a regional difference in metaphorical use. But people are very bad judges of how they 'usually' use words. Thinking about words is conscious, using words involves subconscious processes.

    The main thing is whether there's one thing or more. The metaphorical use of 'untangle' is more likely to be about some kind of morass, the metaphorical use of 'disentangle' is typically about extricating something--in AmE. In BrE 'disentangle' gets more mil(e)age.

  7. I would - and frequently do - untangle my knitting [BrE]wool/yarn{AmE], but I would (and again, frequently do) disentangle my necklaces in their bag.

  8. Yes, and this means that tangles are found in wool, hair, and so on, while entanglements occur metaphorically between two people or physically between swimmers and pondweed...

  9. I think one is more reflexive (?) than the other in AmE. One disentangles oneself from a dog leash or a controversy, but one untangles external objects such as a necklace from itself or from another necklace.

  10. really a work of genius here.. your blog is really an exemplary one..

  11. I need to think some more about this distinction, but one aspect might be simple euphony. "Disentangle" has a rhythm and flow, and gives you a sense of the complications to be unravelled. Harold Macmillan, on becoming Prime Minister, made a great play of his image of "unflappability" (by implicit contrast with his predecessor), which he summed up in a quotation from WS Gilbert:
    Quiet, calm deliberation
    Disentangles every knot."

  12. I definitely have the disentangle from preference. My hunch is that despite being generally a BrE speaker, I also strongly prefer untangle for things like knots or headphone cords, but I don't think it's a hard and fast rule for me.

  13. As an elderly BrE speaker, my general preferences are as Lynne describes, with disentangle for separation and untangle repairing a mess. I'm more prejudiced than many against untangle, though I can use it.

    I'm not sure about adjectival untangled, though. I think I'd prefer to avoid Her messy hair of the previous day was now untangled, instead saying Her messy hair of the previous day had become untangled — or, possibly, had become disentangled.

  14. I always though disentangled was more likely to be reflexive, while untangle was not.

  15. I have been following your blog for a year or so, with great interest. (I have dual British Canadian citizenship.)

    Do you know this verse, set to music by Thomas Ford in the early 17th century?

    "Since first I saw your face I resolved to honour and renown ye;
    If now I be disdainèd I wish my heart had never known ye.
    What? I that loved and you that liked, shall we begin to wrangle?
    No, no, no, my heart is fast, and cannot disentangle."

  16. Lynne:
    "What tangled webs we weave" is a quote I finally disentangled from Shakespearian attribution. Before that it was all tangled up - at least in my mind.

  17. I do not think I have ever used the word disentangle myself, but I read it a lot. (US,Midwest, St. Louis area)

  18. By the way, there are hair care products called detanglers. Not disentanglers, not untanglers. Who can say why?

  19. The reason, I think, that there's something special about disentangle is that there's something special about the word it opposes: entangle.

    The other disem-/disen- words tend to be straightforward. The pairs have meanings significantly different from the core verb. I'll list some common pairs as Past Participles, since some at least are more natural in that form.

    embodied~diembodied vs bodied [rare]
    empowered~disempowered vs powered [different meaning]
    engaged~disengaged vs gaged [rare]
    enfranchised~disenfranchised vs franchised [different meaning]
    enchanted~disenchanted vs chanted [different meaning|

    But the meanings of entangled and tangled have drifted together. For me, and I suspect most other speakers, they have become practically synonymous.

  20. I forgot about:
    embarked~disembarked vs barked [either what dogs do i.e a different verb, or else a verb which hasn't been used for centuries]

  21. In the US you can bark your shin against something. Can you do that in the UK?

  22. To embark is to board a boat or bark/barque, same as the sense used at the Embarcadero (harbour) in San Diego and presumably in other Hispanic ports. But it is interesting that we disembark (and disentangle) rather than de-barquing or de-tangling.

    Have we been here before with the modern words entrain and de-train??

  23. biochemist

    There was a verb bark, now obsolete, from French barquer.

    My guess is that embark was only later analysed as en- + NOUN mode of transport. So — in the Army, at least — the verbs embus, entrain, emplane were formed on the same pattern. There's no feeling that they are en- + VERB bus/train/plane, which is presumably why we don't have disembus, disentrain, disemplane.

  24. empty

    Yes bark your shin is used in British English occasionally. I believe most of us are familiar with the phrasing, though I for one don't use it.

    And though I've long been familiar with this bark, I didn't realise that it's a figurative use of 'strip the bark off'. This makes it parallel to other verbs of removing the outer covering such as skin, peel, scalp etc.

    Personally, I'd say graze your shin.

  25. Does any ordinary person use 'entrain' or 'de-train'? If 'de-train' exists, I would speculate that its use is solely military. If 'entrain', 'embus' or 'enplane' exist at all, I'm fairly sure I haven't met them, and would prefer not to.

  26. I think I might have heard "deplane" once or twice from the crew of a commercial aircraft.

    I'm thinking of calling it "embootation" when I put my boots on.

  27. Dru

    If 'entrain', 'embus' or 'enplane' exist at all

    They are all listed in the OED. Well, there isn't an entry for enbus, but it is there — as an alternative form of embus.

    For some people, it seems, en- has become a distinct prefix exclusively for 'into transport' verbs — unlike the standard multi-purpose en- which becomes em- before p, b, m.

  28. After checking enbus in the online OED, I thought I'd see if they had encoach. Surprisingly, they do — but not for the sort of coach the Army now uses.

    Helpfully, they list together all the obscure and nonce-word en-items which otherwise might not merit an entry. My favourites are encraal 'to lodge in a kraaal' and engammon 'to get into the haunch (of a pig)'.

    The two uses with means of transport are in these seventeenth century quotes:

    ..................................Speculations high,
    Enchariot Thee, Elijah-like, to th' Skie!

    Elijah-like..To be encharioted in Fire.

    Tamburaline..encoacht in burnisht Gold.

  29. (A Frenchie) Yes, all these 'en' sound familiar to me - meaning to embark on some activity, get involved in sth, enclosed in sth (entonner, ennamourer, entraîner, encarapaçonner, endetter - for starting on a 'tune', starting on a love relationship, drawing sn along a suite, a sequence, closing up in a shell, encrusted! , bringing sn into debt).
    Now I'll leave it to you, proper native English speakers, to disentangle the threads of these posts (to untangle the thread of this post?)^^

  30. I think you're right, Monique: even many centuries after French ceased to be the first language of any class of the people of England, the feeling that en-/em- conveys "into-ness" remains powerfully present in English too. And what one has once got into, one may also need to get out of (using "disen-"). Thus: disengage, disentangle, disentwine, and the rest.

    There is, however, at least one case where it was ex- + noun beginning in b- that evolved into "emb-". I'm thinking of the word "disembowel". Doubtless it was for the very reason that it SOUNDED as if the old word "embowel" (= eviscerate) involved inward, rather than outward, movement that the prefix "dis-" was added later.

    Is anyone with access to the "big" Oxford dictionary (with dates) able to confirm the chronology?

  31. I think you're right, Monique: even many centuries after French ceased to be the first language of any class of the people of England, the feeling that en-/em- conveys "into-ness" remains powerfully present in English too. And what one has once got into, one may also need to get out of (using "disen-"). Thus: disengage, disentangle, disentwine, and the rest.

    There is, however, at least one case where it was ex- + noun beginning in b- that evolved into "emb-". I'm thinking of the word "disembowel". Doubtless it was for the very reason that it SOUNDED as if the old word "embowel" (= eviscerate) involved inward, rather than outward, movement that the prefix "dis-" was added later.

    Is anyone with access to the "big" Oxford dictionary (with dates) able to confirm the chronology?

  32. It now strikes me as odd that shins can get barked, and occasionally knuckles but I have never heard it said of forearms even though they can sustain a very similar injury.

    On googling I found this thread from the Straight Dope message Board http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=278958 in which people mention barking elbows, and knees as well. The common factor is that the bone is close to the skin, which brings me back to the forearm and how come we don't bark the skin over the ulna.

  33. Kevin

    In the UK many public libraries allow subscribers to access the OED online. You just enter your local library subscription number. I don't know which libraries outside the UK allow this, if any. What you get is the latest revision for each entry — some updated since the last paper revision in 1989, others not.

    The entry for embowel (not updated) gives an etymology with an alternation in Old French between em- and earlier es- which is, as you suggest, ultimately from Latin ex-.

    In sixteenth century English, embowel meant either to eviscerate or to force something into the bowels.

    The entry (also not updated) for derived, somewhat later, disembowel gives two different meanings:

    • As we might expect, a parallel to disentangle — i.e. 'remove from the bowels'

    • The sense we still use — the 'eviscerate' sense of embowel with extra emphasis.

  34. AnWulf

    In fiction, we see that untangle is noted more often

    Isn't this simply a matter of more American fiction being published than British?

  35. @David ... It could be. It could also be that folks who write more formally write 'disentangle' ... thinking that it is more formal.

  36. Thanks, this post is very useful. But, come to think about it, the difference is obvious:
    - you untangle something which is tangled (i.e., intertwined into itself)
    - you disentangle something which is entangled (i.e., intertwined into something other than itself)


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)