Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

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To decry or descry an evil? Commonly confused words (13-14)


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[13-14 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

A rare confusion

Only one letter separates these two not particularly frequent words, so perhaps it is hardly surprising that they are very occasionally confused.

Though distantly related in origin (see further down) they now have widely different meanings. If you remove the prefix de- of decry, you are left with cry. And in fact that prefix has historically been interpreted as “down”. So, if it helps to distinguish the two words, think of decrying something as crying it down.

A profile of decry

Of the two, decry is by far the commoner, but even so it only occurs about 2.6 times in every million words of texts in the massive Oxford English Corpus (OEC). (For comparison, criticize occurs 40 times every million.)

If you decry something, you publicly express your severe disapproval of it.

As part of its semantic profile, typical objects are the lack or absence of something, the decline in something, the evils of something, and generally disparaged vices, attitudes and facts such as racism, greed, inequality, hypocrisy.

Typical subjects are critics, purists, feminists, pundits, liberals and conservatives. Approximate synonyms are denounce and condemn, which could replace it in some of the examples below, all of which are authentic (i.e. not made up) and from written texts, mostly in the OEC :

  • They decried human rights abuses.—Oxford Dictionary Online
  • She decries the spread of tower blocks and the failure to turn derelict sites into green spaces.—Evening Standard, 2007
  • The Archbishop will also decry the lack of moral vision displayed by MPs compared to the likes of William Wilberforce, who was instrumental in the abolition of the slave trade 200 years ago.—The Telegraph, 2007
  • Feminists have long decried psychology’s devaluing of women’s voices in treatment decisions.— Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 2002
  • #CameronMustGo: Twitter users decry Cameron’s record.—Guardian, 24 November, 2014


If you descry something or someone, you catch a glimpse of them, or catch sight of them, often from a distance, or with difficulty. It occurs in a ratio roughly of 1:40 to decry, and is typical of formal, journalistic or literary registers. (Some of the occurrences of the form descried are actually typos for described)

  • To meet Albert, whom I descried coming towards us.—Queen Victoria’s Journal, 1868


  • Her thoughts were brought to an abrupt end, as she descried two figures on their way up the path—J. Ashe, 1993
  • While he clearly indicates productions he considers successful, I would be hard-pressed to descry a pattern among them.—OEC, 2000.
  • Peering over his shoulder, I descried that he was studying “Malley’s” 16th poem, “Petit Testament,” with its reference to – “Quick. Watson,” he cried. sherlock_holmes“The Shakespeare!” I sprang to the bookshelves.—Jacket Magazine, 2002
  • Through the murk of battle, the fog of US and British military communiques and the more deftly presented Iraqi bulletins, we can begin to descry the shape of things to come.—Sunday Business Post, 2003

The two should not be confused, as has happened in the next example:

X I have some sympathy with people who descry this, and who argue that society’s easy tolerance of single mothers…is actually fostering moral irresponsibility.—OEC, 2005

Fascinating origins: decry

Decry was first used in the early 17th century in the sense “decrease the value of coins by royal proclamation” — in other words, a form of devaluation. Its etymology is de– “down” + cry, from the French décrier , to “cry down”.

The OED first records it in a quotation from the catchily titled 1617 work of the extraordinary Elizabethan traveller and writer Fynes Moryson (of whom more below): An itinerary…containing his ten yeeres travell through the twelve dominions of Germany, Bohmerland [sc. modern Czech Republic], Sweitzerland, Netherland, Denmarke, Poland, Italy, Turky, France, England, Scotland, and Ireland. Divided into three parts.

(it appears that the OED contains nearly 1,400 quotations from this work.)

Having a singular Art to draw all forraine coynes when they want them, by raising the value, and in like sort to put them away, when they haue got abundance thereof, by decrying the value.—I. III. vi. 289

And here is a later example of the same meaning, by the famous diarist John Evelyn:

Many others [sc. medals of Elagabalus] decried and call’d in for his Infamous Life.—Numismata, vi. 204, 1697

It is quite easy to see how this sense had given rise by 1641 to the metaphorical one of disparaging or condemning something, as in this example from Pepys’ diary for 27 November 1665:

The Goldsmiths do decry the new Act.


Like decry later on, descry came into Middle English from across the Channel, from Old French descrier to “publish, proclaim”. The OED suggests that it was influenced by or confused with the obsolete spelling descry meaning “describe”, and states that in some contexts it is impossible to know which is meant.

One of its earliest, and now obsolete, meanings was “to proclaim as a herald”, and it has had several other meanings, but at its first appearance in 1440 it already had more or less its modern meaning, as the OED defines it, “to catch sight of, esp. from a distance, as the scout or watchman who is ready to announce the enemy’s approach”. It appears in the classic Middle English text Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c1400):

Þe comlokest [lady] [sc. comeliest] to discrye.

A truly adventurous life


Fynes Morison spent several years travelling through Europe and the Near East, as well as serving on the staff of the English army in Ireland. He seems also to have been a master of disguise, and a polyglot. As the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography writes:

Moryson was well equipped to write his Itinerary. By his own account he was fluent in German, Italian, Dutch, and French, and his linguistic ability served him well in regions where an Englishman might expect to meet hostility: he generally posed as German or Dutch in the more dangerous states in Italy, adopting a second cover as a Frenchman when visiting Cardinal Bellarmine at the Jesuit college in Rome; he dressed as a down-at-heel Bohemian servant to avoid Spanish troops in Friesland; he passed himself off as a Pole when entering France; and he was got up as a German serving-man when a party of disbanded French soldiers robbed him near Châlons. Travelling without substantial funds or official protection, he survived at various times by adopting a deferential posture, avoiding eye contact, attaching himself to other parties of travellers, concealing a reserve of cash, and keeping his religious convictions to himself, as when he used ‘honest dissembling’ to pass as an English Catholic when lodging with French friars in Jerusalem.”


Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

4 thoughts on “To decry or descry an evil? Commonly confused words (13-14)

  1. Yes, I am enjoying these, thank you. Soon after your first one (of the series…?) ‘appraise’ and ‘apprise’ came up in discussion with a friend and I had to send him the dictionary definitions. He’s very literate but still confused them. Keep up the good work!


  2. What about another pair: ingenious and ingenuous. They seem to mean the opposite of each other


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