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From Old French destemprer, from Latin distemperare.



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distemper (countable and uncountable, plural distempers)

  1. (veterinary medicine, pathology) A viral disease of animals, such as dogs and cats, characterised by fever, coughing and catarrh.
  2. (archaic) A disorder of the humours of the body; a disease.
    • 1719, Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, London: W. Taylor, 3rd edition, p. 105,[1]
      [] my spirits began to sink under the Burden of a strong Distemper, and Nature was exhausted with the Violence of the Fever []
  3. A glue-based paint.
  4. A painting produced with this kind of paint.



distemper (third-person singular simple present distempers, present participle distempering, simple past and past participle distempered)

  1. To temper or mix unduly; to make disproportionate; to change the due proportions of.
  2. To derange the functions of, whether bodily, mental, or spiritual; to disorder; to disease.
    • c. 1600, William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2,[2]
      Guildenstern. The King, sir—
      Hamlet. Ay, sir, what of him?
      Guildenstern. Is in his retirement, marvellous distemper’d.
      Hamlet. With drink, sir?
      Guildenstern. No, my lord; rather with choler.
    • 1814, Joseph Stevens Buckminster, Sermons, Boston: John Eliot, Sermon XVI, p. 267,[3]
      The imagination, when completely distempered, is the most incurable of all disordered faculties.
    • 1924, Herman Melville, Billy Budd, London: Constable & Co., Chapter 3,[4]
      To some extent the Nore Mutiny may be regarded as analogous to the distempering irruption of contagious fever in a frame constitutionally sound, and which anon throws it off.
  3. To deprive of temper or moderation; to disturb; to ruffle; to make disaffected, ill-humoured, or malignant.
    • 1799-1800, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (translator), The Piccolomini by Friedrich Schiller, Boston: Francis A. Niccolls & Co., 1902, p. 37,[5]
      I have been long accustomed to defend you,
      To heal and pacify distempered spirits.
  4. To intoxicate.
    • 1623, Philip Massinger, The Duke of Milan, Act I, Scene 1,[6]
      For the Courtiers reeling,
      And the Duke himselfe, (I dare not say distemperd,
      But kind, and in his tottering chaire carousing)
      They doe the countrie service.
  5. To paint using distemper.
    • 1918, W. B. Maxwell, chapter 10, in The Mirror and the Lamp:
      He looked round the poor room, at the distempered walls, and the bad engravings in meretricious frames, the crinkly paper and wax flowers on the chiffonier; and he thought of a room like Father Bryan's, with panelling, with cut glass, with tulips in silver pots, such a room as he had hoped to have for his own.
    • 1933, George Orwell, chapter 19, in Down and Out in Paris and London[7]:
      We cleaned out the cellars, fixed the shelves, distempered the walls, polished the woodwork, whitewashed the ceiling, stained the floor;
  6. To mix (colours) in the way of distemper.
    to distemper colors with size