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From Middle English, from Old French destrecier ‎(to restrain, constrain, put in straits, afflict, distress) (French: détresse), from Medieval Latin as if *districtiare, an assumed frequentive form of Latin distringere ‎(to pull asunder, stretch out), from dis- ‎(apart) + stringere ‎(to draw tight, strain).



distress ‎(uncountable)

  1. (Cause of) discomfort.
    • 1833, John Trusler, chapter 8, in The Works of William Hogarth: In a Series of Engravings[1]:
      To heighten his distress, he is approached by his wife, and bitterly upbraided for his perfidy in concealing from her his former connexions (with that unhappy girl who is here present with her child, the innocent offspring of her amours, fainting at the sight of his misfortunes, being unable to relieve him farther), and plunging her into those difficulties she never shall be able to surmount.
  2. Serious danger.
    • 1719, Daniel Defoe, chapter 13, in Robinson Crusoe[2]:
      I immediately considered that this must be some ship in distress, and that they had some comrade, or some other ship in company, and fired these gun for signals of distress, and to obtain help.
    • 1759, Voltaire, chapter 42, in Candide[3]:
      At length they perceived a little cottage; two persons in the decline of life dwelt in this desert, who were always ready to give every assistance in their power to their fellow-creatures in distress.
  3. (law) A seizing of property without legal process to force payment of a debt.
  4. (law) The thing taken by distraining; that which is seized to procure satisfaction.
    • Spenser
      If he were not paid, he would straight go and take a distress of goods and cattle.
    • Blackstone
      The distress thus taken must be proportioned to the thing distrained for.

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distress ‎(third-person singular simple present distresses, present participle distressing, simple past and past participle distressed)

  1. To cause strain or anxiety to someone.
    • 1827, Stendhal, chapter 31, in Armance[4]:
      She respects me, no doubt, but has no longer any passionate feeling for me, and my death will distress her without plunging her in despair.
  2. (law) To retain someone’s property against the payment of a debt; to distrain.
    • 1894, James Kent; William Hardcastle Browne, Commentaries on American Law, page 645:
      This power of distress, as anciently used, became as oppressive as the feudal forfeiture. It was as hard for the tenant to be stripped in an instant of all his goods, for arrears of rent, as to be turned out of the possession of his farm.
  3. To treat an object, such as an antique, to give it an appearance of age.
    She distressed the new media cabinet so that it fit with the other furniture in the room.


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