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From Middle English discernen, from Old French discerner, from Latin discernere (to separate, divide, distinguish, discern), from dis- (apart) + cernere (to separate); see certain.


(modern pronunciation)

  • (UK) IPA(key): /dɪˈsɜːn/
  • (US) IPA(key): /dɪˈsɝn/
  • (file)

(older pronunciation)


discern (third-person singular simple present discerns, present participle discerning, simple past and past participle discerned)

  1. (transitive) To detect with the senses, especially with the eyes.
    • 1875, Jules Verne you are no HELP!, chapter 1, in The Survivors of the Chancellor[1], archived from the original on 12 April 2012:
      Meanwhile the brig had altered her tack, and was moving slowly to the east. Three hours later and the keenest eye could not have discerned her top-sails above the horizon.
  2. (transitive) To perceive, recognize, or comprehend with the mind; to descry.
    • 1842, Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation[2], archived from the original on 19 May 2011:
      If they discern any evidences of wrong-going in any direction that I have indicated, they will acknowledge that I had reason in what I wrote. If they discern no such thing, they will consider me altogether mistaken.
  3. (transitive) To distinguish something as being different from something else; to differentiate or discriminate.
    He was too young to discern right from wrong.
    • 1651, Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan[3], archived from the original on 7 June 2011:
      The severity of judgement, they say, makes men censorious and unapt to pardon the errors and infirmities of other men: and on the other side, celerity of fancy makes the thoughts less steady than is necessary to discern exactly between right and wrong.
  4. (intransitive) To perceive differences.


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