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There was the following sentence in a series about the art and craft of writing in New York Times (April 29) written by Tim Kreider under the title, “The Power of ‘I Don’t Know’”:

I’m always ill at ease when I find myself conscripted by the media into the role of Expert on some subject about which I have rashly written. I felt like the explanatory caption beneath my name on-screen ought to be: PERSON IN WORLD. [emphasis added]

As I checked a dictionary (OALED) at hand, it defines ill at ease as an idiom to mean uncomfortable and embarrassed, and uncomfortable as:

3. anxious, embarrassed or afraid and unable to relax
4. unpleasant or difficult to deal with

Are they saying the same thing? Does ill at ease sound more familiar and at-home than uncomfortable, or are they perfectly interchangeable?

  • Comparing the tone of "uncomfortable" to the tone of "ill at ease" invites subjective judgment, but in my view "ill at ease" is by no means less formal or more familiar than "uncomfortable." I think that they are extremely similar in tone, and that neither is at all informal. – Sven Yargs May 1 '13 at 2:08
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Not quite. No word or phrase is 100% subsitutable for any other word or phrase.

For instance, uncomfortable can take a that-complement

  • He's uncomfortable that she's jealous of him.

whereas ill at ease is less adaptable

  • *He's ill at ease that she's jealous of him.

This is pretty much normal behavior for phrases; they aren't as old as words, and they don't have as many affordances and idioms.

As far as semantics is concerned, they mean more or less the same thing;
but, if one looks at the original sense, ill at ease means 'permanently uncomfortable'; i.e, 'uncomfortable while relaxing'. This is a significant extension of simply uncomfortable.

  • Well. That's why the author said I'm "always" ill at ease when .... – Yoichi Oishi May 1 '13 at 1:37
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    Let me add to this that "uncomfortable" can describe physical as well as emotional discomfort, but "ill at ease" describes only emotional discomfort. One doesn't say "I feel ill at ease in these shoes because they're too tight"; one says "I feel uncomfortable in these shoes because they're too tight". Or one says "These shoes are uncomfortable", not "These shoes are ill at ease". Ergo, they are not "perfectly interchangeable". Gnu & wildebeest are at least 99% interchangeable: same animal but different names from different languages. – user21497 May 1 '13 at 3:15

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