Administer and dispense come into comparison because they are used in certain idiomatic phrases, similar in wording but not always equivalent in meaning, such as administer justice or dispense justice; administer a medicine or dispense medicine; administer a sacrament or dispense the Sacrament. Both words imply an acting on the behalf of another in or as if in the capacity of a steward.
Distinctively administer denotes to manage, supervise, or conduct the affairs of another while dispense denotes to deal out in portions or equitably to recipients. These divergent significations are often lost and the words used interchangeably especially when the object of the verb is an abstraction such as justice or charity.
- the citizens disliked the rule of William on account of the strict justice which he administered
- These be the sort to dispense justice. They know the land and the customs of the land.
In reference to a sacrament administer means to perform the rites and duties prescribed for its proper observance and may be used of any of the sacraments; dispense, in contrast, is used only of the Eucharist and retains its underlying implication of dealing out in portions. The two words when used in reference to medicine are precisely distinguished.
One administers a medicine when he gives the prescribed dose directly to the patient; one dispenses medicines when he compounds them according to the prescription of the physician.
Similarly, one administers a blow or a rebuke when he deals it out directly to the individual. Dispense, in comparable phrases, retains its implication of distribution; one dispenses advice when he metes it out to those who in his opinion need it; one dispenses alms when he manages their distribution.