March 2, 2007


discomfit: v.t. [dis-COM’-fit]
1a archaic : to defeat in battle
b : to frustrate the plans of : THWART
2 : to put into a state of perplexity and embarrassment : DISCONCERT
--Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary

c.1225, from O.Fr. desconfit, pp. of desconfire "to defeat, destroy," from des- "not" + confire "make, prepare, accomplish." Weaker sense of "disconcert" is first recorded 1530 in Eng., probably by confusion with discomfort (q.v.).
--Online Etymology Dictionary

For many of the words presented in this blog, I can remember with some precision when and where I first encountered a particular word (and had to look it up in dictionary). Discomfit is one of these words. I first learned it in 1962 at St. Mary’s University, during an undergraduate course on Shakespeare taught by Dr. Louie (as we called him) Schuster, S.M., Ph.D., now of happy memory. You’ll find discomfit meaning “to defeat in battle” presented below in a speech by the King in Henry IV, Part 1, a play that has eventually become one of my favorites.

Below that passage is another one from the New York Times Magazine that shows the word used in its modern sense: “to put into a state of perplexity.”

DISCOMFIT IN ITS ARCHAIC SENSE: "to defeat in battle":
In this scene King Henry IV praises the honor, gallantry, and bravery of his enemy’s son, Hotspur, directly in the face of his son, Prince Hal, who, though “like enough” to Hotspurr in age and raw talent, is, in contrast, openly dishonorable and “degenerate” in his behavior.
From Act III. Scene II. The First Part of King Henry the Fourth. Craig, W.J., ed. 1914. The Oxford Shakespeare.

King to Prince: Thrice hath this Hotspur, Mars in swathling clothes,
This infant warrior, in his enterprises 116
Discomfited great Douglas; ta’en him once,
Enlarged him and made a friend of him,
To fill the mouth of deep defiance up
And shake the peace and safety of our throne.

DISCOMFIT IN ITS MODERN SENSE: “to put into a state of perplexity”:
It’s a discomfiting insight: a person’s vote, a hallmark of democracy, may be biased by polling environment. Yet this has nothing to do with dirty politics or foul play. Rather, it’s a fairly basic principle of psychology—the idea that environment cues can trigger ideas and affect our behavior without being conscious of it. If you’re voting in a school, then the part of your brain that values kids and education might be activated, whereas if you vote inside a church, your ideas about spirituality might be invigorated. For some people, it seems, a change in location is enough to change a vote (82).
From The New York Times Magzine, December 10, 2006 / Section 6 “The 6th Annual Year in Ideas,” “Voting Booth Feng Shui by Zdrienne Davich.

With the synonyms EMBARRASS, ABASH, DISCONCERT, and RATTLE available, why use DISCOMFIT?

If you read the distinctions among the SYNONISMS below and reread the definitions above, my sense is that more than a few of you will agree with the following assessment.
In all five of the synonyms a person (1) encounters a challenge and then (2) responds to or retreats from it in some way. Of the five, discomfit brings, in my view, the highest degree of distress in retreat. A discomfited person becomes perplexed—completely baffled, standing stock still, not knowing what to do.

None in coterie of competing terms below shows quite as much debilitation as does perplexity. The closest competitors to perplexed are “impairment of thought” (under RATTLED). I’ll leave it to the reader to agree or disagree with me that perplexity is worse than agitation that impairs thought and judgment

EMBARRASS implies some influence that impedes thought, speech, or action .
DISCOMFIT implies a hampering or frustrating accompanied by confusion .
ABASH presupposes some initial self-confidence that receives a sudden check, producing shyness, shame, or a feeling of inferiority .
DISCONCERT implies an upsetting of equanimity or assurance producing uncertainty or hesitancy .
RATTLE implies an agitation that impairs thought and judgment .
Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary

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