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shameless pleading

Con / Dif

The courage to cringe.

Dear Word Detective: Whilst reading an excerpt from a (1925) treatise by R.A. Fisher, I came upon the phrase “to express our mental confidence or diffidence,” from which I gather that the opposite of “con” is “diff.” I’d never before seen “diffident” juxtaposed against “confident.” This got me to wondering about “conference” vs. “difference,” and whether any others would come to mind if I had time to ponder long enough. Can you shed light on how these prefixes came to be opposites? — Danny.

Oh yes, R.A. Fisher, the “English statistician, evolutionary biologist, eugenicist and geneticist.” Thanks, Wikipedia! That’s assuming I’ve got the right guy, of course. There seems to be another R.A. Fisher, some dude in Iowa who prepares tax returns. But he has an animated dollar sign jumping up and down on his web page, so it’s a bit hard to imagine that R.A. Fisher using a word like “diffidence.”

“Diffident” is a fine word, and it is indeed the antonym, or opposite, of “confident.” In modern usage, “confident” means “certain, full of conviction” (“Henry was confident he could convince the judge to drop the charges”) or “self-assured, bold” (“Henry became noticeably less confident when the bailiff snapped on the cuffs”). “Diffident,” on the other hand, is used today to mean “timid, lacking self-confidence” or “reserved in manner, shy” (“Lyle’s diffident demeanor cost him the promotion that would have made him Henry’s assistant and, ultimately, his cellmate”).

When “diffident” first appeared in English in the late 16th century, however, it carried the somewhat different meaning, now obsolete, of “lacking trust (in)” or “distrustful” (“I am somewhat diffident of the truth of those Stories,” 1692). Similarly, “confident,” which appeared at roughly the same time, originally meant “trusting” (“You see, my Lord, how confident I am with you, to tell you what … occurreth to me upon this subject,” 1638), which later developed into the modern “assured, bold” meanings.

Both words arrived in English from Latin, although they show signs of being influenced by their equivalents in French. “Confident” is based on the Latin “confidere,” meaning “to trust or rely on,” a combination of “con” as an intensive prefix meaning “thoroughly” plus “fidere,” to trust. (“Con” or “com” as a prefix can either mean “together with” (as in “contract”) or be used as an intensive, as in “confide,” “confident,” etc. “Con” in “pro and con” is short for the Latin “contra,” against.)

“Diffident” is based on the antiquated verb “defide,” now rarely seen, meaning “to lack trust or confidence; to feel distrust” (essentially the opposite of “confide,” to put trust in). This “defide” is also based on the Latin “fidere,” to trust, but employs the prefix “dif” to negate the verb.

So “con” and “dif” make all the difference. Now there are two tricky things about Latin prefixes. One is that they can vary a bit in form according to the root word they precede. So “con” can sometimes appear as “com” or just “co.” The prefix “dif” can appear as “dis,” “des,” “di” and even “der.” The second funny thing about prefixes is that they often wander far from their original meaning. “Con” and its other forms derive from the Latin preposition “cum,” meaning “with,” and all its incarnations follow the general sense of “jointly, together” (as in “copilot” or “commingle”). “Dif” as a prefix, however, has a more complex history. Its original form was “dis,” representing a Greek root with the general sense of “in two ways” or “separated.” This led to “dis” and its relatives being used to mean “divide or set apart” (as in “discern” and “disseminate”), “remove, reverse or negate” (“displease” “disassemble”), and simply as an intensive. “Dis” in the form “dif” also gave us the word “different,” via the Latin “differre,” to set apart, from “dif” (apart) plus “ferre,” to carry.

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