A question on ELU asked for A word for making an event more likely or less likely and I proposed the verb pair favor/disfavor in an answer, with these examples:

For example, in the case of the Ising model, if we consider two neighboring variables, X, Y, the local function will favor (higher probabilities) configurations in which X = Y and will disfavor (lower probabilities) configurations in which X ≠ Y. Luis Sucar; Probabilistic Graphical Models (2020)

The universe does not carry a memory of past results that will favor or disfavor future outcomes. S. Martinez-Conde et al.; Sleights of Mind (2011)

There is no problem finding a dictionary definition for this sense of the verb favor:

Work to the advantage of.

Natural selection has favored bats Lexico

Of a circumstance, fact, etc.: To lend confirmation or support to (a belief, doctrine, rarely, a person); to point in the direction of.

1887 C. C. Abbott Waste-land Wanderings ii. 22 Every indication favored rain. (OED)

However, I was surprised when I couldn't find an opposite definition for the verb disfavor, such as work to the disadvantage of or weaken confirmation or support. For example, the sole definitions in these three dictionaries are:

disfavor (v.)

To regard or treat with the reverse of favour or good will; to discountenance; to treat with disapprobation. (OED)

Regard or treat (someone or something) with disfavor. Lexico

To withhold or withdraw favor from m-w

Are there conditions or constraints (e.g. register) on using disfavor in the "neutral" sense of making something less probably or saying something is less likely, i.e. without denoting disapproval as in the above and following examples?

This fact disfavors the possibility that genetic personality differences are maintained by a mutation selection hypothesis. D. Buss et al.; The Evolution of Personality and Individual Differences (2011)

Such bias favors the finding of positive associations and disfavors the possibility that significant associations do not exist. But despite such inherent bias, the observed effects were small. H.R. 1633, the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011

There is, therefore a well defined line which limits the extent to which the general government can act as a moral person, and regulate its powers so as to favor or disfavor particular acts of individuals in the States. James Carter; Cases Adjudged in the Supreme Court (1891)

Is this meaning of disfavor so rare that it doesn't merit a dictionary definition?

  • 3
    Given OED's latest citation is 1895 and it was last comprehensively updated in 1896, it's likely that its entry is now incomplete.
    – Andrew Leach
    Mar 30, 2022 at 14:33
  • @AndrewLeach Editorial disfavor perhaps? :-) The print New Oxford American is no better. OK, one down, many to go.
    – DjinTonic
    Mar 30, 2022 at 14:39
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    The answer is going to be 'Although it is logical that this sense of disfavo[u]r should exist, and the odd example can be found in creditable writing, the usage must be seen as very rare, so much so that most dictionaries do not list it. It should be used, if at all, with care.' IMO. Mar 30, 2022 at 16:24
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    ... You'll have to get in touch with the individual editorial boards to get an answer to that. All others can do is refer to usual practice. Mar 30, 2022 at 18:54
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    It can often take a while for a new sense of a word to make it into dictionaries. Lexicographers give more priority to adding new words than minor variations in definitions of existing words.
    – Barmar
    Mar 30, 2022 at 22:25

1 Answer 1


The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language fifth edition (2011) seems to be coming around to acknowledging the newer general sense of disfavor that you ask about:

disfavor ... tr.v. ... 1. To view or treat with dislike or disapproval. 2. To slow down or otherwise reduce the success of (a chemical process or pathway): conditions that disfavor the growth of a pathogen.

Although definition 2 doesn't express precisely the sense (or senses) of disfavor that the examples you cite call for, it's at least in the vicinity. Perhaps most importantly, definition 2 provides a foothold for nonspecialists and word popularizers to use in transferring what was (and perhaps still is primarily) a technical term applicable to chemistry or medicine to less technical settings—a critical step in achieving mainstream blunting, broadening, and subsequent adoption of the previously specialized meaning.

Notably, previous editions of AHDEL, including the fourth edition (2000) list only definition 1 of disfavor as a verb. As Johnny Cash might say of definition 2, "I see that meanin' comin'; it's rollin' 'round the bend..."

  • Good find! That is the first dictionary mention of something akin to likelihood.
    – DjinTonic
    Mar 1 at 13:01

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