Q&A: Defuse or diffuse

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're blowing a fuse…

Q: Hi AWC, I was watching two people argue on a social media comments section last night.

A: Wow, because that almost never happens.

Q: Yes, ironically they were arguing over whether you would “defuse” or “diffuse” a situation – something I was unable to do because I wasn’t sure of which one it was.

A: Would you like us to clear it up for you?

Q: Yes please!

A: It becomes fairly easy once we play the prefix game.

Q: Is that like Hungry Hungry Hippos?

A: Sort of. Except that it has no hungry hippos, or board and isn’t really much of a game at all.

Q: Oh.

A: The prefix ‘game’ is simply comparing the start of both words – in this case “de” and “dif”.

Q: This is the dumbest game ever. Are there at least dice?

A: No. Sorry, we probably oversold that whole concept. Anyway, “de–” is a Latin prefix that was used to indicate a removal, separation or reversal of the thing that followed. Some call it a discount version of the prefix “dis–”.

Q: Don’t you mean a “decount” version? Haha.

A: You are hilarious.

Q: Anyway, that probably makes sense. Some say that my uncle Hank was good at defusing situations.

A: How so?

Q: He was a bomb disposal expert.

A: Ah well, exactly! He was literally removing the FUSE from the bomb – defusing it. “Defuse” was in fact a wartime word – first appearing in 1943 for somewhat obvious reasons. By the late 1960s it moved to more figurative situations – such as tensions or arguments.

Q: So the correct term is “defuse a situation” then?

A: Absolutely. The situation is tense and you are “removing the explosiveness” from it.

Q: So, what’s the diff with “dif–”?

A: Cute. The prefix “dif–” means separate – think of “different” for example. In the case of “diffuse”, the verb means to spread things out and scatter them in all directions.

Q: So if Uncle Hank had cut the wrong wire, he would have actually diffused the bomb, not defused it!

A: Yes, that’s one way of thinking about it. Another important difference is that “diffuse” can also be an adjective. In that case, the “–fuse” part has a hard S, rhyming with “moose” rather than “ooze” – and the adjective either means spread out or wordy and lacking clarity.

Q: Wordy and lacking clarity huh?

A: Careful.

Q: Well can you give me examples?

A: Sure, so a group of people who live in a spread out area may be described as a “diffuse group of residents”. Or, you might hear that “her argument was diffuse and poorly thought out.”

Q: Okay, great. So finally, does “difficult” therefore mean to disperse members of a cult?

A: You know it doesn’t.

Q: What about “de-escalate”? Is that to go the wrong way up an escalator?

A: No.

Q: And “defence”? Is that really removing your neighbour’s privacy and letting the dogs out?

A: This is getting silly. We’re going to defuse this situation right now…

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