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Discomfit vs. discomfort: What's the difference?

We're happy to have an enthusiastic word-nerd audience with lots of suggestions and questions.  

Douglas, who listens to us from Atlanta, wants to know about discomfit vs. discomfort.

He wrote: “I once was discomfited by discomfort, never discomforted by discomfit.”

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan started digging.

"We’ve got these two verbs. Let’s start with discomfit. It’s a word that I certainly recognize when I read, but I don’t think it’s a verb that I use," Curzan says.

"It goes back to the 13th century – it’s been in English for a long time. It comes in from Anglo-Norman French, and when it comes into the language, it means “to defeat in battle.”

This is not at all what it means now, Curzan says.

"That meaning has pretty much died out, although the Oxford English Dictionary has a quote from 1990 from a book about medieval warfare, and the quote is: ‘Warriors would leave their defenses to discomfit the enemy.'”

In other words, to defeat them.

"Over time this verb weakened and came to mean to frustrate the plans or hopes of, to thwart, and now to the meaning it has today: to cause unease, to cause embarrassment or to cause discomfort," Curzan explains.

That gets us to discomfort.

"It also comes in from Anglo-Norman French, 14th century-ish. It originally meant to deprive of courage, or to dishearten," Curzan says. 

"Here’s an interesting thing. It had this thing of meaning you’re making someone happy, but between the 14th and 17th century, it appears to have gotten confused with discomfit. So discomfort was sometimes used to mean defeat in battle."

But not for long, Curzan says.

"It didn’t seem to survive the 17th century, and by the early 19th century, discomfort meant to make someone mentally or physically uncomfortable, in other words, to discomfit. The two merge to mean pretty much the same thing."

Curzan has been trying to figure out whether discomfit and discomfort are going to exist side by side.

"The fact is, not many people use discomfort as a verb," she says. "For me, that’s a noun – you can cause discomfort. But I don’t tend to use it as a verb, and didn’t find much use in databases.

"I could find examples of discomfit as the verb, so I thought, maybe we’ll start to see discomfit as the verb and discomfort as the noun. But the problem with my theory is that discomfit, while it does appear sometimes in writing, does not appear in the spoken language very much. It doesn’t look very healthy."  

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.