Defining today’s word with today’s word, you could either read it as you please or just read it once and discard it. Being as much about how we utilize it as the meaning of the word itself, today’s word potentially offers convenience, but perhaps it’s worth noting that, as with anything, this convenience comes at a price – even if we’re not immediately aware of it. Potentially used to define everything from the goods we buy and the items we use to our money and even, regrettably, other people, here’s some insight on what it means to be disposable.
Coming from the combination of the verb dispose, which is derived from the Old French disposer and originated from the Latin disponere, meaning literally ‘to place apart or arrange’, and the suffix –able, from the from Latin -abilis, meaning ‘capable of being or allowed to be’, our word disposable can literally be taken to mean ‘something that may be placed apart’.
Logically reading a little deeper into this meaning, today’s word is all about options, in the sense that something may be placed apart to be used or “disposed of” at the discretion of someone. Echoing this sentiment is the first recorded use of the term in English, which can be found in The Soveraigne Power of Parliaments and Kingdomes, a 1643 work by lawyer, author, and prominent Puritan William Prynne, in which he writes that: “Most of the great Offices..are hereditary, and not disposable by the King.” Moreover, to best understand this initial usage, it may be helpful to think of the notion of disposable income: as defined in the American Dialect Society’s quarterly journal, American Speech, in 1948: “‘Disposable income’, then, represents the money actually available for consuming power, for savings and for investments.”
Almost a decade later, considering the more literal usage of the term mentioned earlier, Puritan cleric John Gaule, in his 1652 book, Πῦς-μαντία, The Mag-Astro-Mancer, with the understanding of the term that someone would be inclinable or have a tendency towards something, states: “That the Pupil be naturally inclined to the art; or easily disposable thereto.”
Fast forwarding almost 3 centuries, the idea of the word as being placed apart to be used has remained; however, the great difference lies in the discretion of the user. Applying the term to a usually consumer-based item that is specifically made to be used one time and then discarded, the 1943 childcare book by L. Emmett Holt, M.D., The Care and Feeding of Children, mentions the then money and labour-saving concept and how: “The disposable paper diapers are a great convenience and involve relatively little expense.”
Of course, nearly 80 years after this first mention of disposable products, we’ve realized that there’s a price for that cheap convenience. In New York City alone, product waste (meaning packaging and old products) rose from an average of 92 pounds per person per year in 1905 to a staggering 1,242 pounds per person per year in 2005, with product packaging and items in use for less than 3 years representing 57% of all solid waste. On the other hand, opting for convenience isn’t totally our fault: the theory of planned obsolescence, where products are made to fail or become less desirable in a comparatively short span of time, thus enticing people to purchase more new products more quickly is also to blame for this rapid increase in, well, disposability.
That being said, people seem to be rediscovering the first definition with relation to our modern understanding of disposable goods: we’ve realized that cheap, throw-away products still have consequences, and we’re re-learning how to arrange our usage of such goods to make the most impact.