Mistrust vs. Distrust

By Maeve Maddox

A reader wants to know if there is a difference between the words mistrust and distrust.

The short answer is, “No.”

As verbs, both distrust and mistrust mean, “to be without confidence.”

As nouns, both distrust and mistrust mean, “lack of trust or confidence.”

The Google Ngram Viewer graph shows distrust as the more common of the two words since 1800.

When I entered various phrases, the ones that began with distrust were more common than the ones with mistrust–with one curious exception: “mistrust my wife” was more common than “distrust my wife.” And neither “mistrust my husband” nor “distrust my husband” brought up any results at all.

I predict that mistrust will eventually drop out of general use. I base my prediction on the fact that a red squiggly line appears under mistrust when I type a phrase with it into the Google search box. Another clue is that the search results come up prefaced with the question, “Do you mean distrust?”

The only possible distinction I can discern between mistrust and distrust is that mistrust is a slightly “softer” word that may imply some doubt that the lack of trust is justified.

Here are some examples of current usage of these synonyms:

Marilyn’s insecurity made her mistrust everyone.

Gen Halvorson can’t resist reaching out to the little boy, despite his father’s obvious mistrust of her talents and her motives. 

Politics has become static in America, and Americans have always distrusted politicians. 
 
I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires. –Susan B. Anthony 

Research has found we distrust those who are mean with their money.

Cynicism is an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others’ motives believing that humans are selfish by nature.

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9 Responses to “Mistrust vs. Distrust”

  • Nancy R.

    “When I entered various phrases, the ones that began with distrust were more common than the ones with mistrust–with one curious exception: “mistrust my wife” was more common than “distrust my wife.” And neither “mistrust my husband” nor “distrust my husband” brought up any results at all.”
    This is very interesting!
    Also, I agree that “mistrust” is somewhat gentler than “distrust.”
    Fun post, Maeve.

  • David Knuttunen

    Although it’s archaic, it is interesting to contrast “misdoubt”, which actually has a meaning similar to “mistrust”, but LOOKS like it should mean the opposite.

  • Michael W. Perry

    Quote: “The only possible distinction I can discern between mistrust and distrust is that mistrust is a slightly “softer” word that may imply some doubt that the lack of trust is justified.”

    Agreed! That was my first thought as a began reading. I suspect that behind that lies a slightly different twist to each.

    Mistrust is a lack of trust based more on intuition that experience. It’s a sense that trust in someone would be misplaced. Bill Clinton hadn’t finished the first sentence I’d heard him speak before I knew I mistrusted him. The “ah feel yore pain” tone to his voice is a classic illustration of the faked concern of a con man.

    In contrast, distrust is a lack of trust based on actual experience. I now distrust Bill Clinton because I’ve heard him repeated lie. I now know know what I formerly only sensed.

    What is amazing to me is that there are people who still either believe Bill Clinton or think he’s an especially clever liar. The latter is particularly common among journalists and is absurd. Bill Clinton is such a bad liar, he could say “Two plus two equals four” and still reveal himself as a liar. The very tone of his voice reveals him.

    You see the same distinction with lying smiles. Some people can spot fake smiles and some can’t. With smiles, the difference lies in what facial muscles are involved, as this Wikipedia article notes:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smile

    With lying voices, the distinction lies in contrived tones of concern. Like fake smiles, the effort tends to be exaggerated and used in contexts where it seem inappropriate.

    Lying, whether with smiles or words, offers a good test of character. Wise people learn to make the distinction between the fake and the real. With them, mistrust moves smoothly to distrust as more experience is acquired. They are rarely fooled.

    Foolish people don’t do that. Some remain naive, believing lying smiles or words and never learning from experience. Others swing from naive trust to cynical distrust, almost never getting it right. In general, they have rotten lives.

    A writer should keep in mind this distinction when he creates characters. Most stories benefit from having someone who instinctively spots liars as well as someone who’s always a fool. The latter can be either comic or tragic.

    Many murder mysteries, for instance, pit a lead character (i.e. Sherlock Holmes) who is a good judge of people with another who isn’t (i.e. a Scotland Yard detective). The contrast helps to move the plot along.

    –Michael W. Perry co-author of Lily’s Ride

  • Julie Link

    I would add that the prefix mis- has as one of its meanings “badly or wrongly.” This is the use of the prefix in such terms as “misunderstand,” miscontrue,” and misrepresent.” My first thought, on seeing the words “distrust” and “mistrust” was that “distrust” is a nonexistent trust (i.e., suspicion or cynicism), while “mistrust” is a badly placed trust (i.e., honest trust placed in a dishonest person). Did this distinction show up anywhere in your research, Maeve?

  • Julian Barker

    I would tend to use “mistrust” as the noun and “distrust” as the verb. I’m probably not 100% consistent, and I don’t claim to be correct; just adding to the data.

  • Lars Rosager

    Julie Link: I absolutely agree with your view. When one missteps, one steps incorrectly, so to speak. A mishap is an accident, some event that did not go according to plan or strayed from the intended track somewhere along the line. Although the linguistico-historical explanation is somewhat outside of the time I presently have to research and support my views, I would not distrust the notion that mistrust is a trust that has resulted in betrayal, a person one has trusted’s having broken a promise, etc. Distrust, I feel, as a native English speaker, is simply not trusting. Mistrust, on the other hand, would be putting one’s faith in another and seeing an upsetting outcome.

  • David Logan

    ‘distrust’ is negative.

    ‘mistrust’ is cautionary

  • Shauna Viele

    I wonder also if the usage is regional. I live in the Midwest, and frankly have not heard anyone use the word “distrust” at all. We say “mistrust”. (Or just plain “I don’t trust them!”) *sigh* Oh well. It wouldn’t be the first time we have differed from everyone else!

  • Moe Badderman

    # “if there is a difference”
    Of course there is a difference between two different words. See the comment by Julie Link below, and ignore (or better still, delete) the political rant by Michael W.Perry.

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