Discomfiture Is Worse Than Discomfort

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I’ve noticed the two nouns, discomfort and discomfiture, being used interchangeably, as if both meant simply, “the condition of being uncomfortable—physically or mentally.”

A toothache causes discomfort. Certain topics of conversation cause discomfort in some listeners. When I peruse the comments on my posts, vulgar language and ad hominem attacks cause me discomfort.

Discomfiture, on the other hand, seems to me to convey something more intense than the discomfort of the body or the unease of seeing or talking about uncomfortable subjects. Discomfiture is discomfort accompanied by additional feelings such as embarrassment, frustration, and humiliation.

For example, discomfiture is what I feel when I spot a typo or (worse yet) a factual error in one of my posts after I’ve clicked on the Submit button and have no way to correct it.

Here are some examples of apt uses of discomfiture:

Mr Gove, cheeks delightfully rouged, was stumped. Eventually he muttered something about the Prime Minister being a man he admired. Mr Sheerman, thrilled by the minister’s discomfiture, afforded himself a hearty chuckle.

The administration can do at least two things, and quickly, to demonstrate real support for Iranians — and intensify the discomfiture of Khamenei and Rouhani.

There is something in the British psyche that sort of quite enjoys the discomfiture of successful people.

Excited by the discomfiture of their masters, the peoples of European empires elsewhere in the world licked their lips and awaited the next European war.

In each example, the word points to feelings of embarrassment, frustration, failure, or defeat.

The nouns discomfort and discomfiture have related verbs: discomfort and discomfit.

Discomfort as a verb dates from the fourteenth century and discomfit from the thirteenth.
The older verb, discomfit, seems to be making a comeback, but modern speakers rarely, if ever, use discomfort as a verb. That’s too bad.

In a culture that places a great deal of importance on making people feel “comfortable,” we need a verb that means, “to make uncomfortable.”

An early meaning of the verb discomfit is “to defeat or rout in battle.” For example,

He had prayed that the Lord would scatter, discomfit, and destroy all those that rose up against his Majesty.

In modern usage, discomfit has two common meanings: “to embarrass” and “to thwart the plans of.”

Here are apt examples of discomfit:

“Many changes for the better, I should expect,” said my uncle, who took pleasure in discomfiting priests. —Gary Jennings, Aztec Autumn (2006).

Johnson’s claim that he needs the proroguing to prepare major legislation is of course just window-dressing. This is a tactical move to discomfit his opponents. —The Australian, August 31, 2019.

But I doubt there is a judge in the state who would dare discomfit a police chief in such a manner [jail the chief until subordinates return confiscated goods]. —A lawyer’s blog April 5, 2019.

Here are two examples of discomfit used where it seems that discomfort would be the better choice:

We wanted to engage students both cognitively and non-cognitively, to discomfit them to a degree, to occasion self-reflection without the usual challenges of privacy and cultural filters.— 2019 case study on public policy teaching.

At other places, but I’m happy to say not yet at Purdue, students have demanded to be kept “safe” from speech, that is, mere words, that challenge or discomfit them.—Commencement address.

In both these examples, the meaning seems to be “make uncomfortable” and not “embarrass or thwart their intentions.”

I’m always pleased to see archaic words brought back to life—as long as they fill the need for a new meaning or shade of meaning. Discomfit and discomfiture deserve to be used as meaningful words in their own right, not as faintly pompous synonyms for discomfort.

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