disburse 1. v. to pay out (esp. from a fund), to pay (e.g., a bill).
disperse 1. v. to break up, to spread something over an area, to make something evaporate.
Words in the Wild: When the bank refused to disburse their life savings to the townsfolk, George had to call the police to disperse the angry mob.
I came across this lexical vexation in a recent edit: a crowd that was supposed to be dispersed was instead disbursed. These two words sound incredibly similar, making this an easy mistake to make, especially when you’re on a roll and your hands are typing as fast as you can think. And, as is so often the case, spell checkers won’t help you uncover one of these errors. But if you remember that the -burse in disburse is also found in bursary, that’ll help. (By the way, the -sperse in disperse goes way back to the Latin spargĕre, meaning to sprinkle.)
Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.