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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]:
      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]:
      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.
    • 1651, Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan[3]:
      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.
    He was too young to discern right from wrong.
  4. (intransitive) To perceive differences.


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