A reader wrote to us to say that she’s heard, on several occasions, people in the media use the word unorganized when they should have used disorganized.
If something (or someONE) is a mess, thus creating a difficult situation, then it (or HE) is disorganized.
Papers that need to be filed at the county court in 10 minutes shouldn’t be flung up in the air so that they settle back down in a variety of piles on the floor and are picked up in a random fashion; that would make them disorganized (and probably get you a lot of sighing and eye-rolling from the people behind the counter at the courthouse).
If your desk has piles of old papers on top of dry pens and broken staplers, which are next to files that have some of their papers falling out of them, and you can hear your phone but you can’t actually see it, what with the computer cords and last night’s pizza box on top of them, that’s disorganized (not to mention a possible health violation).
If you can never find anything in your purse and always end up getting drenched while you’re looking for your keys on your rainy doorstep, then your purse is disorganized (and you’re giving women a bad name).
Unorganized denotes more of a neutrality, that is, things just aren’t in a particular kind of order. Disorganized denotes an utter, annoying, time-consuming, embarrassing mess.