This word has Latin roots that literally mean “to scatter apart.” (It’s a cousin of the word “sparse,” meaning “few, thin, scattered,” as well as “intersperse,” meaning “to scatter in between.”)
When things or people are clumped all together, and then they disperse, they scatter: they move away from each other, usually in many directions.
Part of speech:
It’s usually the intransitive kind: “the particles dispersed into the air,” “the demonstrators dispersed when the police arrived.”
But it can also be the transitive kind. Here’s Wordsworth: “Her feet disperse the powdery snow.”
Other useful forms:
dispersed, dispersing, dispersion, dispersive
How to use it:
This word is common and formal, with a calm, factual tone that can sound scientific.
Talk about groups or quantities of physical things and people that disperse, like crowds of protesters, clouds of sediment, and clumps of dust and gravel on driveways or in outer space.
Although dispersing is something that physical objects (and people) most often do, you can also talk about abstract things dispersing, like worries, concerns, troubles, and bad moods. If you can imagine it disappearing in all directions, you can say that it disperses.
“Aryan migration theory… posits that the originators of Vedic culture — a significant component of Hinduism — dispersed into India around 4,000 years ago.”
— Srinath Perur, Nature, 24 July 2019
“Unfortunately, it takes a lot for democracy to materialise, but not much for it to be dispersed.”
— Umut Özkirimli, The Guardian, 24 July 2019