Discernment and Discrimination
© 27 Feb 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Is it good to distinguish between individuals?


I am fascinated in English by words that have very similar denotations but radically different connotations. Several recent experiences have caused me to reflect on the several words that mean to treat individuals differently from one another.

Distinguish and distinct are from the Latin: dis-, meaning lack of, apart, or oposite; stinguere, meaning to prick; and the -ish ending that tagged on to many English words coming from the Old French which is (as far as I can tell) meaningless. The denotation is thus to prick apart, an intentional and nontrivial separation. The connotation is sometimes simply that things are not interchangeable (distinct, indistinguishable, etc.) and sometimes the object of particular favor (distinction, distinguished, etc.).

Discern and discriminate are also from the Latin: dis-, meaning lack of, apart, or oposite; and cernere, meaning to sift or separate. The denotation is thus to make a full and careful separation. The connotation of discern is one of perceptive recognition of non-obvious underlying truth; the connotation of discriminate (since the 1860s) is quite the oposite, being more of an unjust imposition of difference where none is deserved.

It is interesting to me that within this single idea we may discern four distinct connotations. We seem to discriminate against poor “‍discriminate‍” and hold “‍distinguish‍” in some distinction.

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