Easily Confused Words: Distain vs. Disdain

Distain and disdain are easily confused words.

The spell-check application of most word processing software programs would not catch a slip-up of these two words. Spell-check is looking for words that aren’t in its dictionary, and words that resemble words in its dictionary but are possibly spelled wrong. Spell-check isn’t perfect. It doesn’t know and can’t guess what word you wanted or what word you meant, it can only judge the words on the page. If you used words that are all spelled correctly, it gives you a pass anyway.

Autocorrect suggests words that start with the same letters. It’s suggesting what word you may want to save time, but quite often, its suggestions are pretty off base. They don’t help you out, but they do make you laugh.

Distain (pronounced “dihs-tane”) is a verb. It means to soil one’s clothes, furniture, or another surface. [Yes, this is one of those odd times in English where “stain” and “distain” mean basically the same thing.]

Figuratively, distain could be used to indicate damaging something more abstract, like a reputation or a public persona.

Disdain (pronounced “dihs-dane”) has multiple meanings.

  • As a verb, it means showing contempt or extreme dislike of others, or behaving in snobbish, unresponsive way, as if another person isn’t worthy of engaging with or responding to in any fashion.
  • As a noun, it means an attitude of extreme dislike, contempt that’s reflected in a person’s speech or behavior towards someone or something else. In this year’s election cycle (2016), we’ve seen a whole lot of disdain on display from presidential candidates, surrogates, and political action committees (PACs).

The following story uses both words correctly:

Eurydice sensed her fellow beauty contestants disdained her. They would try anything to get her disqualified. It was confirmed when Donatella dropped some makeup. It distained Eurydice’s skirt right before she went onstage to sing. Thankfully she had brought a spare outfit, and changed in the nick of time. 

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