From Conflict to Dispute

The overuse and dramatization of the word ‘conflict’ in contemporary media, by employing terms such as armed conflict, countries affected by conflict, deadly conflicts, and such, have dramatically transformed the true meaning of the word. In contrast, the word dispute has gained more presence in legal and less dramatic disagreements.

To cast an unbiased light on this, let us start with a closer look at the origins of these two words.

The word ‘dispute’ comes from the Old French disputer (engage in argumentation or discussion) and directly from Latin disputare (debate, discuss, argue, explain), which, in turn, comes from dis- (apart) + putare (to count, consider)[1].

On the other hand, ‘conflict’ comes from the Latin con– (together) + fligere (to contend),[2] meaning to be in opposition, to be contrary or at variance (Marchant & Charles, 1977). In ancient Greek literature, conflict is the challenge that the protagonist faces in various forms of uncertainty (agon).

The word ‘conflict’ has a being connotation and a two-way focus of togetherness, conveying the meaning of an inner feeling and perception that something is different (from what one thinks or wants it to be), and this difference (variance) is discomforting, hence defining conflict as a discomforting difference, while, in contrast, ‘dispute’ has an active undertone to it, a focus on engagement, and a feeling of being apart and separate.

This understanding leads to this notion that conflict covers a much larger domain, within which a portion encompasses dispute, or noting it mathematically:

Dispute Sub Set of Conflict

Any discomforting difference creates a conflict in an individual, whereas disputes emerge between a number of people when an individual engages another person in some sort of an action (i.e., communication) to address the discomforting feeling the conflict has caused them. A conflict may lead to a dispute—or it may lead to many other things, say, depression—while a dispute always has its roots in a conflict.

Dispute Sub Set of Conflict



[1] Marchant, J., & Charles, J. (1977). Cassell’s Latin dictionary. London: Cassell.

[2] Note that fligere with the prefix con- takes the meaning of ‘contend’. Without this prefix, fligere will be closer in meaning to fligo (strike, clash).


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