Discomfort and Discomfiture

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,

Can you explain the origin of the word discomfiture? This seems to be a recent invention; I was not coming across this word about 10 years ago. However, recently its use has increased. Is it the same as discomfort?

Discomfiture is not as common a word as discomfort, but it has been used continuously in English since Chaucer’s day. Discomfort is a little earlier, dating from about 1350, when it meant “deprivation of happiness.”

The earliest OED citations show discomfiture used with the meaning “defeat in battle.” Meanings that developed from there include “frustration of plans or hopes; utter disappointment; perplexity, confusion.” In time, the meaning weakened to include lesser emotions, such as unease, embarrassment, and similar-sounding discomfort.

Although the words may be considered synonyms, discomfiture implies a stronger sense of unease and confusion than discomfort because it combines the connotation of both defeat and embarrassment. Even when defeat is not implied, discomfiture suggests a sense of agitation that discomfort lacks.

I never was more completely whipped in a criminal case, and I always thought Judge Miller enjoyed my discomfiture more than anyone else.

So terrible was his appearance that Spitz was forced to forego disciplining him; but to cover his own discomfiture he turned upon the inoffensive and wailing Billee and drove him to the confines of the camp.

Tempting as it is, though, to smile at the court’s discomfiture, the bigger issue here is whether the federal judiciary should be so actively engaged in the details of the electoral process. 

Discomfort implies a sense of uneasiness, inconvenience, or mild physical pain.

If you have a comfort zone, you must also have a discomfort zone. 

Why Getting Comfortable With Discomfort Is Crucial To Success

About a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple institutions have told me that they are not including rape law in their courses, arguing that it’s not worth the risk of complaints of discomfort by students.

If you experience any discomfort in your eye after doing an activity in which a small particle could have entered your eye, such as hammering or working under a car, don’t ignore it. 

I would save discomfiture to describe the kind of discomfort that includes embarrassment on the part of the person feeling it.

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2 Responses to “Discomfort and Discomfiture”

  • James

    And then there’s “uncomfortability”, my current pet peeve.

  • Curtis Manges

    Discomfiture is found in the King James Bible, in I Samuel 14. I thought I had recalled seeing discomfit or discomfitted somewhere in the KJV, but I was wrong. Memory is unreliable; always check your facts.

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