A glitch in translation?

Watching Borgen, I was struck by its ability to make coalition politics in a foreign country gripping—almost.

Since we have to read the subtitles attentively to follow what’s going on, the English is seen, rather than heard, so any oddity of phrasing has more impact—at least on me. One such oddity was the word discontentment, in episode 3. I cannot remember the exact context, but it was something like ‘there’s a lot of discontentment in the Labour Party’.

At first, I thought this must just be a quirky translation, a mistake for discontent. So then, I started to think about an explanation. (Yes, I know, I really should get out more.)

If a Dane did the translation, they might have assumed, quite logically, that the opposite of contentment is discontentment. But English doesn’t work in such a neat way: the opposite of contentment is discontent.

But if a mother-tongue speaker translated, why choose this particular variant? Stylistically, it is highly ‘marked’: it draws attention to itself as a rather unusual lexical choice.

A bit of back story

If you are asking yourself if discontentment is a ‘real’ word, it is.

The Oxford English Dictionary shows that it has been around since the last quarter of the sixteenth century, first appearing in 1579 in a translation from Italian.

In one of the first dictionaries for translating into English, John Florio’s 1598 Italian-English A Worlde of Wordes, discontentment appears more often as the translation of the corresponding Italian words than does discontent.


The OED also quotes its use in one of the major translations of the period, but this time from Latin. Discontentment also figures in a wonderful book title of 1645, The remedy of discontentment, or, A treatise of contentation in whatsoever condition.

Discontent, the normal word choice nowadays, is first recorded from a little later—1591—in a work by Spenser. And the Bard used it in 1597 in that quotation from Richard III

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sonne of Yorke;

And all the cloudes that lowrd vpon our house230px-Richard_III_earliest_surviving_portrait

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

And that’s where the cliché (first coined, possibly, by The Sun) of referring to a period of industrial unrest as “winter of discontent” comes from. Shakespeare had also used the word in Titus Andronicus (1594), and Bacon used it in a work of 1605.

It begins to look as if the two words were in competition for survival at the beginning of their careers.

(Of course, Shakespeare couldn’t have used discontentment, because it would have given his line 11 syllables, rather than 10. But perhaps his use of discontent helped to make it the dominant form in the long run.)

Survival of the shorter

But only one has thrived.

The Oxford English Corpus, containing over 2 billion words of modern text, shows that discontent occurs more than 9,000 times, while its longer sibling appears a mere 198 times.

Discontent also appears in the sort of quotations collected in quotations dictionaries, for example Matthew Arnold’s

And sigh that only one thing has been lent

To youth and age in common—discontent

Matthew Arnold

and memorably in the English title of Freud’s originally German Civilization and its Discontents.

Do they mean different things?

The OED divides discontentment into four meanings, all of which it says match a meaning of discontent, to which they are cross-referred. The OED’s main definitions of the two words are almost identical:

discontentment –  the fact or condition of being discontented.

discontent –  the state or condition of being discontented.

I scanned a few sentences from the Oxford English Corpus containing discontentment, and could infer no obvious semantic reason for choosing it. Some examples, however, suggest that people sometimes use it to balance another noun, either in form—“the root cause of disappointments and discontentment”—or in number of syllables—“disharmony and discontentment”, i.e. four syllables each.

Your point being?

I confess I haven’t answered my own question about why discontentment was used in the translation of Borgen.

One guess runs like this.Let’s assume contentment is the base form stored in the brain, and dis– is stored separately as a negative prefix to be added when required. Let’s also say that discontent is irregular because it is not a straightforward derivative of contentment. If you are writing or speaking in a hurry you might automatically output discontentment, because your brain hasn’t had time to retrieve discontent precisely because it is anomalous.

It has also intrigued me to think about how and why one alternative of a pair of English words is commoner than another. A similar competition between alternative forms is played out nowadays between such pairs as preventive and preventative, dissociate and disassociate, or educationist and educationalist.

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