Discomfit, Discomfort, Disconcert

These words are commonly confused, perhaps because they begin with the same four letters and sound similar to boot. Moreover, they now have similar meanings thematically related to the original meaning of discomfit. How necessary is it to distinguish between them?

Discomfit was first on the scene (early 1200s1) and originally was used in the sense of “to defeat in battle.”2 The related form discomfiture, meaning “complete disconcertment or putting to confusion”1—a sense clearly related thematically to the original sense—appeared little more than a century later.

Discomfort also appeared slightly later (late 1300s1) and originally was used in the sense of “Undoing or a loss of courage; discouragement, disheartening.” In a related vein, discomfort also was used at roughly the same time to indicate “Absence or deprivation of comfort or gladness, desolation, distress, grief, sorrow, annoyance.”1 Both of these uses are now largely obsolete, although the word is still often used in a somewhat weaker sense to indicate one’s feeling mildly uncomfortable, either physically or emotionally.1,2

Disconcert was the late bloomer, not bandied about until the late 1600s,1 when it was used in the sense of “To throw into confusion, disarrange, derange, spoil, frustrate”1—again, a meaning clearly thematically linked to defeat in battle. The word is still often used, albeit in a weaker sense, ie, “to disturb the composure of.”2

The upshot? Purists will advocate maintaining the distinction between discomfit and discomfort, using the former only in its original sense of indicating defeat in battle.3 However, as is so often the case, usage is becoming more permissive, and while purists certainly will cringe at the thought, the interchangeable use of these words is gaining increased acceptance. Nevertheless, a few distinctions are worth preserving:

Discomfit, while occasionally still used in the sense of “to frustrate or thwart,” is currently most often used to indicate mental, rather than physical, states, specifically in the sense of one’s being perplexed or embarrassed—ie, disconcerted. However, its use as either a verb or an adjective now seems stilted or pretentious. For example, Edmund Crispin’s “Widger was not wholly without Schadenfreude at seeing his informative colleague discomfited for once”4 conjures images of Niles and Frasier Crane slouching about in Harris Tweed, sipping sherry and exchanging witty asides. Most speakers will use disconcerted or, finding even disconcerted a tad too uppity, will simply use embarrassed.

Discomfort is most often used to indicate one’s feeling physically or emotionally uncomfortable, resulting either from the efforts of others or from personal excess: “The excitement produced by the cigar is followed by a feeling of discomfort.”1

Disconcert, indicating perplexity or disturbed composure, is still occasionally used as a verb but currently is used much more frequently as an adjective, eg, “I find all this very disconcerting.”—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:443.

2. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:356.

3. The pedant: comfit and cloy. The Times Web site. http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/the_way_we_live/article6953527.ece. December 12, 2009. Accessed May 12, 2011.

4. Discomfit. Answers.com Web site. http://www.answers.com/topic/discomfit. Accessed May 12, 2011.

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