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[dih-surn, -zurn] /dɪˈsɜrn, -ˈzɜrn/
verb (used with object)
to perceive by the sight or some other sense or by the intellect; see, recognize, or apprehend:
They discerned a sail on the horizon.
to distinguish mentally; recognize as distinct or different; discriminate:
He is incapable of discerning right from wrong.
verb (used without object)
to distinguish or discriminate.
Origin of discern
1300-50; Middle English (< Old French) < Latin discernere to separate, equivalent to dis- dis-1 + cernere to separate
Related forms
discerner, noun
prediscern, verb (used with object)
undiscerned, adjective
1. discover, descry, espy. See notice. 2, 3. differentiate, judge. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018.
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Examples from the Web for discern
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • In the nearer ranks we may discern the variety of ingredients that compose the mass.

    Biographical Sketches Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The physical facts couldn't be denied, and beyond the physical facts I could discern nothing.

  • The second course was so equal that the keenest judges could not discern any vantage.

    The White Company Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Within the door of the cottage you discern the wife, with her ruddy English cheek.

    Main Street Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • She had an eye to discern, and a courage to seize, an important crisis.

British Dictionary definitions for discern


(transitive) to recognize or perceive clearly
to recognize or perceive (differences)
Derived Forms
discerner, noun
Word Origin
C14: from Old French discerner, from Latin discernere to divide, from dis-1 (apart) + cernere to separate
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for discern

late 14c., from Old French discerner (13c.) "distinguish (between), separate" (by sifting), and directly from Latin discernere "to separate, set apart, divide, distribute; distinguish, perceive," from dis- "off, away" (see dis-) + cernere "distinguish, separate, sift" (see crisis). Related: Discerned; discerning.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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