Q&A: Defuse or diffuse

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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…

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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