Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 112: Disco!

This week on Grammar Grater, we're going to examine three words that sound similar yet they have subtle differences in meaning. Those words are discomfit, discomfort and disconcert.

First, let's look at the word disconcert. According to the New York Times Everyday Reader's Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused and Mispronounced Words, edited by Laurence Urdang, the word disconcert is a verb that means:

To make someone feel uneasy or uncomfortable; confuse; upset.

Here are examples of disconcert in context:

Andy Roddick knows that former coach Brad Gilbert is there, breathing down his neck, but it does not disconcert him enough to make him wonder what he is trying to do on the court.
– Neil Harman, The Times Online, March 30, 2006.

"I am going to rest today," said the Japanese competitive eating champion Takeru 'Tsunami' Kobayashi, who denied his jaw problem was a ploy to disconcert his rivals.
– AFP report in ABC News (Australia), July 4, 2007.

Next, we have the verb discomfit. According to Fowler's Modern English Usage, the word discomfit entered the English language from French, and it originally meant "to defeat in battle." Fowler's says that nowadays, discomfit has taken on a weakened sense of disconcert.

According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the verb discomfit specifically means:

Baffle, thwart, defeat the plans, hopes or purposes of; throw into confusion; disconcert; embarrass.

Here are examples:

He seemed flustered, discomfited.
I should have corrected her, but discomfited, I missed the right moment.

The noun form of discomfit—essentially the state of being discomfited—is discomfiture. This word most obviously suggests the word's French roots, as it bears close resemblance to modern French noun déconfiture, which means collapse or ruin. Here's an example of how discomfiture can be used in English:

I started laughing to cover up my discomfiture.

Now let's talk about discomfort. According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the noun discomfort means:

Uneasiness of body or mind; lack of comfort (literal or figurative). Also, something which makes one uncomfortable; an inconvenience, a hardship.

Here's an example:

These platform shoes give me a lot of discomfort.

And here's an example from Paul Theroux's book, The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas, when he describes being aboard a poorly lit, crowded and overheated train:

"We left at sunset, and at once I had an urge to get off the train. Already I was uncomfortable, and the journey was not worth this discomfort."

Using discomfort as a verb gives us a sentence like this:

The crowded, overheated train was discomforting to me.

Now let's compare that to how the verb discomfit is used:

I was discomfited when I lost my train tickets.

The sources agree that ultimately, disconcert and discomfit have more to do with mental anguish, confusion or embarrassment. Discomfort, as a noun or verb, is more about being uncomfortable, either physically, socially or emotionally.

Music from this episode: "I Love the Nightlife (Disco 'Round)" by Alicia Bridges, "Boogie Shoes" by KC and the Sunshine Band, "More Than a Woman" by the Bee Gees, and "Hot Stuff" by Donna Summer.

Sources: Fowler's Modern English Usage by RW Burchfield; New York Times Everyday Reader's Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused and Mispronounced Wordsedited by Laurence Urdang; Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Fifth Edition); Larousse's French-English English-French Dictionary.

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