It’s tough to be dispositive about dispositif

In which a French word means nothing like the English word that it looks like, and I remain puzzled even after looking it up.

dispositif?” Read this post and you’ll see why it strikes me as funny. Picture source: cover of the book by Giorgio Agamben.” The title of the book means “what is a dispositif?” Read this post and you’ll see why it strikes me as funny. Picture source: cover of the book by Giorgio Agamben.

In France, I often ran across the word dispositif, but somehow never got around to looking it up.  I see now why I had trouble even guessing at its meaning–besides looking like an English word that it has nothing in common with semantically, it has a number of quite different meanings.  Here’s how it showed up in an email at work one day:

Nous avons commencé une expérience sur la collaboration et cohabitation des deux utilisateurs dans un même dispositif immersif (EVE) et on cherche toujours des participants.

In the context of where I work, it’s likely that the intended meaning is a “device, machine, apparatus,” as in this example from C’est un dispositif de chauffage très perfectionné “It’s a very sophisticated heating device.”

If you’re talking about the police or the military, it would translate as “presence,” as in this example from L’Etat a prévu un gros dispositif policier pour le prochain G20 “The government has organized a significant police presence for the next G20.”

It can also mean “plan.”  Here’s an example sentence, again from Le dispositif de défense aérienne est revu tous les ans “The air defense plan is reviewed every year.”

The meanings can be more diverse than that, though, including things like “measures,” “system,” and others.  Here are some examples from

  • Pour les véhicules équipés d’un dispositif antiblocage…  For vehicles with anti-lock systems… (Source:
  • Le Fonds monétaire international (FMI) participera au dispositif de financement et devrait fournir un montant correspondant à la moitié au moins de la contribution de l’UE.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF) will participate in financing arrangements and is expected to provide at least half as much as the EU contribution. (Source:
  • Ce sera probablement la mise en place d’un véritable dispositif de financement This will probably entail setting up a real funding scheme.  (Source:

So, what’s the English word that I was confusing this with?  Dispositive.  Something is “dispositive” if it brings something to a resolution–it “disposes” of the issue, in essence.  Here are some examples from the enTenTen corpus (19.7 billion words of English):

  • The dispositive issue in these cases, simply put, is whether, for purposes of allocating its finite resources, a state has a legitimate reason to differentiate between persons who are lawfully within the state and those who are unlawfully there.
  • First, particularly in a highly hierarchical employment setting such as law enforcement, whether or not the employee confined his communications to his chain of command is a relevant, if not necessarily dispositive, factor in determining whether he spoke pursuant to his official duties.
  • To the recently admitted student: embrace your cultural heritage, and know that test scores and GPA were not dispositive factors in your acceptance.
  • One data point is not dispositive.
  • The Court found it dispositive, for instance, that 1-40-121 did not regulate candidate elections, and that the risk of corruption so prevalent in such elections was minimal in the initiative context.

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