The Grammarphobia Blog

Discomfit zone

Q: Why do so many people misuse the word “discomfited”? It doesn’t mean the same as “discomforted,” which ain’t even a word.

A: The verbs “discomfit” and “discomfort” (as well as their past participles “discomfited” and “discomforted”) are indeed real words. They once meant different things, but their meanings (long confused) have now pretty much merged.

“Discomfit,” which dates back to 1225, originally meant to defeat or overthrow. It comes from an Old French word, desconfire, meaning to defeat.

“Discomfort,” which dates from 1330, originally meant to discourage or dishearten, but it eventually weakened and now means to disconcert or make uneasy. It comes from an Old French word, desconforter (to make uncomfortable).

Although many sticklers insist on the original meaning of “discomfit,” the word has been used for hundreds of years to mean disconcert, as in this quote from the Dickens novel Dombey and Son (1848): “Dombey was quite discomfited by the question.”

In fact, this “new” usage is so prevalent that it has become the principal meaning of “discomfited,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), while the old sense of defeated or overthrown has become a secondary meaning.

A usage note in American Heritage says the use of “discomfit” to mean disconcert probably arose in part because of confusion with “discomfort,” but this meaning “is now the most common use of the verb in all varieties of writing and should be considered entirely standard.”

Thus does language change!

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