I’ve recently erroneously used the term diffidence with the meaning of distrust.

Diffidence is one of the terms called false friend and, as a matter of fact, the same term in French defiance and Italian diffidenza mean “distrust”.

They all derive from Latin diffidentia "mistrust, distrust, want of confidence” but, unlike in other languages, the term in English had a semantic change:

Original sense (distrust of others) is obsolete; the modern sense is of "distrust of oneself, want of confidence in one's ability, worth, or fitness" (1650s), hence "retiring disposition, modest reserve." (Etymonline)

Can anyone try to explain how this semantic change happened in English?

  • Does 'distrust in oneself' to 'modest' not bridge the gap for you?
    – Mitch
    Oct 22, 2019 at 19:45
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    lexical shifts ... often not explainable
    – lbf
    Oct 22, 2019 at 22:20
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    Interesting question. My WAG (wild ass guess) is that the answer lies in it being an uncommon word in English to begin with. Occasional use combined with lack of good context leading to semantic shift.
    – David M
    Oct 22, 2019 at 22:54
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    Incidentally, defiance is also a false friend, as it means something else in English (the act of defying). Oct 23, 2019 at 8:18
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    The OED gives examples if the first meaning of Lack of confidence or faith in someone or something; distrust; ... doubt. from a1425, a1450, 1526, 1548, 1614, 1649, 1712, 1741, 1823, 1892, 2007. and of the second meaning of Doubt in one's own ability, ... lack of self-confidence; modesty or shyness ... from 1557, 1605, 1711, 1798, 1841, 1861, 1921, 1954, 2002. A glance at the intervals tends to suggest that the current meaning appeared come time in the late 18th century, the two ran together for about 100 years and the first meaning was then relegated in the early 20th century.
    – Greybeard
    Jul 19, 2020 at 9:27

1 Answer 1


This is just my best guess:

English has countless examples of pairs of words with similar meanings; in most cases, one word is derived from Latin (usually via French), and the other is derived from a Germanic root. Sometimes, there are more than two in each family, and the result is what one might call "semantic crowding" followed by words in the family either becoming more specific or more generic. This seems to be what happened in the case of 'diffidence.'

Derived from Latin: diffidence, confidence
Derived from Germanic root: mistrust, trust, distrust

Diffidence is now the opposite of one sense of confidence. It is no longer the opposite of trust because that word already had two opposites derived from the same root in mistrust and distrust. Diffidence is forced to specialize and loses its broader meaning, as do distrust and mistrust. Confidence, on the other hand, has only one possible synonym in trust, and this allows both to retain a broad semantic field without overlapping entirely.

  • Please restrict best guesses to 'comments'. And we've all had to get past the 50-point hurdle. Nov 22, 2019 at 16:07
  • The OED gives no Germanic origins for 'diffidence': Etymology: < classical Latin diffīdentia lack of confidence, distrust, in post-classical Latin also lack of religious faith (Vulgate) < diffīdent- , diffīdēns , present participle of diffīdere diffide v. + -ia -ia suffix1; compare -ence suffix.
    – Greybeard
    Jul 19, 2020 at 9:31

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