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Discipline refers to systematic instruction given to a disciple. This sense also preserves the origin of the word, which is Latin disciplina "instruction", from the root discere "to learn," and from which discipulus "disciple, pupil" also derives.

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To discipline thus means to instruct a person or animal to follow a particular code of conduct, or to adhere to a certain ". " Consequently, "in the field of child development, discipline refers to methods of modeling character and of teaching self-control and acceptable behavior." So for example, to discipline a child to wash her/his hands before meals. Here, 'washing hands before meals' is a particular pattern of behaviour, and the child is being disciplined to adopt that pattern. 'To disciple' also gives rise to the word disciplinarian, which denotes a person who enforces order. An ideal disciplinarian is one who can enforce order without coercion for "family specialists agree that using physical force, threats and put-downs can interfere with a child's healthy development." [1] Usually however, the phrase 'to discipline' carries a negative connotation. This is because enforcement of order - that is, ensuring instructions are carried out - is often regulated through punishment. [2]

To be disciplined is then, subject to context, either a virtue (the ability to follow instructions well) or a euphemism for punishment (which may also be referred to as disciplinary procedure). As a concrete noun, the discipline refers to an instrument of punishment, for example in mortification of the flesh. Such an instrument may also be applied to oneself, for example in penitence for not being sufficiently self-disciplined.

Self-discipline refers to the training that one gives one's self to accomplish a certain task or to adopt a particular pattern of behaviour. For example, denying oneself of an extravagant pleasure in order to accomplish a more demanding charitable deed. Thus, self-discipline is the assertion of free will over more base desires, and is usually understood to be a synonym of 'self mastery'. Self-discipline is to some extent a substitute for motivation, when one uses reason to determine a best course of action that opposes one's desires.

An academic discipline refers to a body of knowledge that is being given to - or has been received by - a disciple. The term may then denotes a 'sphere of knowledge' that an individual has chosen to specialise in. In an institute of higher learning, the term 'discipline' is often a synonym of faculty'.


[a. F. discipline (OF. also dece-, dese-, desce-, 11th c. in Hatz.-Darm.), ad. L. discipl{imac}na instruction of disciples, tuition, for discipul{imac}na, f. discipulus pupil, DISCIPLE. Etymologically, discipline, as pertaining to the disciple or scholar, is antithetical to doctrine, the property of the doctor or teacher; hence, in the history of the words, doctrine is more concerned with abstract theory, and discipline with practice or exercise.]


  • 1. a. Instruction imparted to disciples or scholars; teaching; learning; education, schooling. Obs.

1382 WYCLIF Prov. iii. 4 Thou shalt finde grace, and good discipline [1388 teching] befor God and men. c1510 BARCLAY Mirr. Gd. Manners (1570) Fvj, If thou haue in greke had all thy discipline, To dispute in latin what needeth thee to seeke. 1548 HALL Chron., Edw. IV, 223b, He firste holpe his awne young scholers, to attein to discipline, and for them he founded a solempne schoole at Eton. 1606 SHAKES. Tr. & Cr. II. iii. 31 Heauen blesse thee from a Tutor, and Discipline come not neere thee! 1615 Stow's Annals (1631) 307/2 Apt to all offices of worthinesse, if in his child-hood hee had not wanted discipline.

b. A particular course of instruction to disciples. Discipline of the Secret (a translation of modern L. discipl{imac}na arc{amac}n{imac}, used by Tentzel and Schelstrate 1683-5): a term of post-Reformation controversy, applied to modes of procedure held to have been observed in the early Church in gradually teaching the mysteries of the Christian faith to neophytes, and in concealing them from the uninitiated.

1620-55 I. JONES Stone-Heng (1725) 9 They communicated nothing, but to those of their own Society, taking special Order..their Discipline might not be divulged. 1833 ROCK Hierurgia II. 1 §3 note, The Discipline of the Secret. 1885 Catholic Dict. 266 Discipline of the Secret..a convenient name for the custom which prevailed in the early Church of concealing from heathen and catechumens the more sacred and mysterious doctrines and rites of..religion.

  • 2. A branch of instruction or education; a department of learning or knowledge; a science or art in its educational aspect.

c1386 CHAUCER Can. Yeom. Prol. & T. 700 Assaye in myn absence This disciplyne and this crafty science. 1500-20 DUNBAR Poems lxv. 4 To speik of science, craft, or sapience..Off euerie study, lair, or discipline. 1549 COVERDALE, etc. Erasm. Par. Eph. II. 2 Being singularely learned in humayne disciplines, ye haue excelled other sortes of men euer vnto this day. 1597 MORLEY Introd. Mus. 184 Ye tearmeth he musick a perfect knowledge of al sciences and disciplines. 1654 Z. COKE Logick (1657) 2 Objective disciplines be..principally four. 1 Theologie. 2 Jurisprudence. 3 Medicine. 4 Philosophy. 1685 BOYLE Enq. Notion Nat. 375 Acquainted with Physico-Mathematical Disciplines, such as Opticks, Astronomy, Hydrostaticks, and Mechanicks. 1741 MIDDLETON Cicero I. vi. 454 Skill'd in all the Tuscan discipline of interpreting portentous events. 1844 EMERSON Lect. New Eng. Ref. Wks. (Bohn) I. 266 The culture of the mind in those disciplines to which we give the name of education. 1864 BURTON Scot Abr. II. i. 48 Professors of arts and disciplines at Paris. 1878 BELL Gegenbaur's Comp. Anat. 1 The department of Science which has organic nature for its investigations, breaks up into two great divisions, Botany and Zoology..The two disciplines together form the science of living nature. 1942 Spectator 27 Feb. 204/1 The distribution of academic disciplines in which they [sc. candidates for the Foreign Office] had specialised. 1958 G. J. WARNOCK Eng. Philos. since 1900 xiii. 172 It is only quite recently that the subject-matter, or rather the tasks, of philosophy have come to be clearly distinguished from those of other disciplines. 1962 Lancet 13 Jan. 113/1 Sir Leonard Parsons..had been the first to draw into the paediatrics of his time other disciplines such as biochemistry and immunology.

  • 3. a. Instruction having for its aim to form the pupil to proper conduct and action; the training of scholars or subordinates to proper and orderly action by instructing and exercising them in the same; mental and moral training; also used fig. of the training effect of experience, adversity, etc.

1434 MISYN Mending of Life 112 Qwhat is disciplyne bot settyng of maners or correctynge?..be disciplyne we ar taght rightwysnes, & of ill correctyd. 1607 BACON Ess., Marriage & Single L. (Arb.) 268 Certainely wife and children are a kind of discipline of humanity. 1697 DRYDEN Virg. Georg. III. 323 The pamper'd Colt will Discipline disdain. 1713 STEELE Englishman No. 7. 46 Clowns under the Discipline of the Dancing-Master. 1736 BUTLER Anal. I. v. Wks. 1874 I. 85 The present life was intended to be a state of discipline for a future one. 1741 MIDDLETON Cicero I. VI. 461 Caelius..was a young Gentleman..trained under the discipline of Cicero himself. 1849 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. II. 240 A mind on which all the discipline of experience and adversity had been exhausted in vain. 1857 RUSKIN Pol. Econ. Art i. (1868) 23 The notion of Discipline and Interference lies at the root of all human progress or power. 1862 SIR B. BRODIE Psychol. Inq. II. v. 177 No part of early education is more important than the discipline of the imagination. 1892 WESTCOTT Gospel of Life 270 Every sorrow and pain is an element of discipline.

b. spec. Training in the practice of arms and military evolutions; drill. Formerly, more widely: Training or skill in military affairs generally; military skill and experience; the art of war. (Cf. sense 2.)

1489 CAXTON Faytes of A. I. i. 3 Rules, techyngs and dyscyplyne of armes. 1555 EDEN Decades 21 A man not ignorant in the disciplyne of warre. 1602 WARNER Alb. Eng. IX. xlvi. (1612) 216 Martialists in Discipline and ordering their war. 1659 B. HARRIS Parival's Iron Age 41 School of war..where all the Martiall Spirits resorted, to learn Discipline, and to put it in practice. 1775 R. H. LEE in Sparks Corr. Amer. Rev. (1853) I. 52 Without discipline armies are fit only for the contempt and slaughter of their enemies. 1776 GIBBON Decl. & F. I. 297 It was the rigid attention of Aurelian, even to the minutest articles of discipline, which bestowed such uninterrupted success on his arms.

c. A course of training. Obs.

1577 B. GOOGE Heresbach's Husb. III. (1586) 153 The knowledge of keeping cattell hath a discipline, wherein a man must from his very Childhood be brought up. 1664 EVELYN Kal. Hort. (1729) 188 By such an Oeconomy and Discipline, as our Industrious Gardiner may himself be continualy improving. 1683 Brit. Spec. 40 To those..who..underwent the Severities of a long and tedious Discipline.

  • 4. The orderly conduct and action which result from training; a trained condition.

1509 FISHER Fun. Serm. C'tess. Richmond Wks. (1876) 290 The comparyson of them two may be made..In nobleness of Persone, in discyplyne of theyr bodyes. 1551 T. WILSON Logike (1580) 15b, The polliticall lawe doeth cause an outward discipline to be observed, even of the wicked. 1611 BIBLE Transl. Pref. 1 Seeking to reduce their Countreymen to good order and discipline. 1728 NEWTON Chronol. Amended iv. 312 He..reduced the irregular and undisciplined forces of the Medes into discipline and order. 1781 GIBBON Decl. & F. III. liii. 287 The discipline of a soldier is formed by exercise rather than by study. 1827 POLLOK Course T. IV, Sound-headed men, Of proper discipline and excellent mind.

  • 5. a. The order maintained and observed among pupils, or other persons under control or command, such as soldiers, sailors, the inmates of a religious house, a prison, etc.

[c1450 tr. De Imitatione I. xxv, Fervent & devoute bre{th}ren & wel manered & under discipline.] 1667 PEPYS Diary 1 Apr. (Wheatley, 1895, VI. 249) [Sir] W. Coventry is wholly resolved to bring him to punishment; for, ‘bear with this’, says he, ‘and no discipline shall ever be expected.’ 1697 DRYDEN Virg. Georg. II. 509 Let crooked Steel invade The lawless Troops, which discipline disclaim. 1813 WELLINGTON in Gurw. Desp. X. 539 The fact is, that, if discipline means obedience to orders, as well as military instruction, we have but little of it in the army. 1827-38 HARE Guesses Ser. II. (1873) 494 Discipline..should exercise its influence without appearing to do so. 1836 MARRYAT Midsh. Easy xiii, If I do not punish him, I allow a flagrant and open violation of discipline to pass uncensured. 1849 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. I. 424 The discipline of workshops, of schools, of private families..was infinitely harsher. 1889 Times 9 Mar. 16/1, I recently heard a learned limb of the law..confound prison punishment with prison discipline, forgetting that the former is merely a means of enforcing the latter.

b. A system or method for the maintenance of order; a system of rules for conduct.

1659 B. HARRIS Parival's Iron Age 40 The Mutiners governed themselves in form of a Republick, observing a most exact discipline. 1726 G. SHELVOCKE Voy. round World (1757) 227 Having regulated themselves according to the discipline of Jamaica. 1861 M. PATTISON Ess. (1889) I. 47 The inmates..were submitted to an almost monastic discipline.

  • 6. a. Eccl. The system or method by which order is maintained in a church, and control exercised over the conduct of its members; the procedure whereby this is carried out; the exercise of the power of censure, admonition, excommunication, or other penal measures, by a Christian Church.

1549 Bk. Comm. Prayer, Commination, In the primitive church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as were notorious sinners were put to open penance. 1561 T. NORTON Calvin's Inst. (1578) IV. xii. 2 The first foundation of discipline is, that priuate monitions should haue place. 1574 tr. Marlorat's Apocalips 18 Our meeting vpon that day rather than vpon any other, is onely for orders sake, and for a certeine discipline in the Churche. 1621 First Book of Discipline (1721) IX. i. 568 The order of Ecclesiastical Discipline, which stands in reproving and correcting of the Faults which the Civill Sword either doth neglect, or may not punish. 1858-60 GARDNER Faiths World I. 479/1 The ancient discipline of the church, while it excluded offenders from spiritual privileges, left all their natural or civil rights unaffected.

b. Hence, generally, the system by which the practice of a church, as distinguished from its doctrine, is regulated. spec., in Eng. Ch. Hist., The ecclesiastical polity of the Puritan or Presbyterian party (thence styled DISCIPLINARIANS) in the 16th and 17th c.

Books of Discipline: the name of two documents, adopted in 1561 and 1581 respectively, constituting the original standards of the polity and government of the Reformed Church of Scotland, and also dealing with schools, universities, and other matters.

[1574 W. TRAVERS (title) Ecclesiasticæ Disciplinæ et Anglicanæ Ecclesiæ ab illa aberrationis..explicatio.] 1574 T. CARTWRIGHT [transl. of prec.] (title) A full and plain Declaration of Ecclesiastical Discipline owt of the Word off God, and of the declining of the Churche of England from the same. 1588 W. TRAVERS (title) A Defence of the ecclesiastical discipline ordayned of God to be used in his Church, agaynst a reply of Maister Bridges. 1593 R. BANCROFT (title) A Survay of the Pretended Holy Discipline. Ibid. v. 70 (heading) The pretended Antiquitie of the Consistorian Discipline. 1594 HOOKER Eccl. Pol. (1888) I. 126 The wonderful zeal and fervour wherewith ye have withstood the received order of this Church..to join..for the furtherance of that which ye term the Lord's Discipline. Ibid. 127 Let it be lawful for me to rip up to the very bottom how and by whom your Discipline was planted. Ibid. 138 That which Calvin did for establishment of his discipline, seemeth more commendable than that which he taught for the countenancing of it when established. 1610 B. JONSON Alch. III. i, This heat of his may turn into a zeal, And stand up for the beauteous discipline Against the menstruous cloth and rag of Rome. 1642 CHAS. I, Roy. Protestations 4 New doctrines and disciplines. 1643 MILTON (title) The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce restored..from the Bondage of Canon Law. 1676 W. HUBBARD Happiness of People 35 Wee in New England that profess the doctrine of Calvin, yet practise the discipline of them called Independant, or Congregational Churches. 1792 BURKE Let. to Sir H. Langrishe Wks. 1842 I. 547 Three religions..each of which has its confession of faith and its settled discipline. 1874 GREEN Short Hist. viii. §5. 509 The Presbyterian organization remained untouched in doctrine or discipline. 1885 Catholic Dict. 265 Usually, discipline in its ecclesiastical sense signifies the laws which bind the subjects of the Church in their conduct, as distinct from dogmas or articles of faith, which affect their belief. c1566 KNOX Hist. Ref. Scot. (1848) II. 181 (anno 1561) The Preacheris vehementlie exhorted us to establische The Buke of Discipline, by ane Act and publict Law. 1621 CALDERWOOD Hist. Kirk (1843) II. 50 At the same conventioun [1561], the Booke of Discipline was subscribed by a great part of the nobilitie. Ibid. 51 To establishe a more perfyte discipline, which was done twentie yeeres after..as we sall see in the Second Booke of Discipline. 1621 (title, 1st printed ed.) The First and Second Booke of Discipline, together with some Acts of the Generall Assemblies. 1860 J. LEE Hist. Ch. Scot. I. 151 The first head of the original Book of Discipline treats of Doctrine..The second head relates to Sacraments..The fourth head related to Ministers and their lawful election.

  • 7. a. Correction; chastisement; punishment inflicted by way of correction and training; in religious use, the mortification of the flesh by penance; also, in more general sense, a beating or other infliction (humorously) assumed to be salutary to the recipient. (In its monastic use, the earliest English sense.)

a1225 Ancr. R. 138 Auh ancre schal..temien ful wel hire fleschs..mid heuie swinke, mid herde disciplines. 1340 Ayenb. 236 Hit be-houe{th} {th}et uless beate and wesse be dissiplines and be hardnesses. 1382 WYCLIF Prov. iii. 11 The discipline of the Lord, my sone, ne caste thou awey. 1482 Monk of Evesham (Arb.) 22 Alle that were there wyth grete contricion of herte toke discyplynys of roddys. 1509 FISHER Fun. Serm. C'tess Richmond Wks. (1876) 293 The blessyd Martha is praysed in chastysynge her Body by crysten dyscyplyne. 1620 SHELTON Quix. IV. xxv. II. 277 They did institute Rogations, Processions, and Disciplines throughout all that Country. 1686 J. SERGEANT Hist. Monast. Convent. 34 If any be found unchast, she receives three Disciplines or Scourgings. c1790 WILLOCK Voy. 36 With a rope's-end..he continued this discipline till he rendered me incapable of moving. 1811 Sporting Mag. XXXVII. 133 [She] came in for her share of the discipline which her husband was undergoing. 1888 BERNARD Fr. World to Cloister v. 113 The corporal austerities which are known as ‘the discipline’.

b. transf. Hence applied to the instrument of chastisement: A whip or scourge; esp. one used for religious penance.

1622 PEACHAM Compl. Gent. 120 By Chastity standeth Pennance having driven away with her discipline Winged Love. 1630 WADSWORTH Pilgr. iii. 20 Approaching his bed side with two good disciplines in their hands, the ends of some stucke with wyery prickes, they did..raze his skinne. 1707 J. STEVENS Quevedo's Com. Wks. (1709) Rij, The Whipsters..laid aside their Disciplines. 1825 SCOTT Talism. iv, On the floor lay a discipline, or penitential scourge. 1848 J. H. NEWMAN Loss & Gain III. x. 376 In the cell..hangs an iron discipline or scourge, studded with nails.

  • 8. Treatment for some special purpose, e.g. medical regimen. Obs. rare.

1754 E. MONTAGU in Four C. Eng. Lett. 280 He has been under discipline for his eyes, but his spirits and vivacity are not abated. 1816 JANE AUSTEN Let. 9 July (1952) 457 Her illness must have been a very serious one indeed... Tell your Father I..most sincerely join in the hope of her being..much the better for her present Discipline.

  • 9. attrib. as in discipline-master, a master in a school employed not to teach, but to keep order among the pupils.

1892 Pall Mall G. 2 Nov. 6/3 A discipline master, who was running with the hounds, plunged in to catch the ‘hares’. 1895 Daily News 3 Apr. 8/3 Deceased was employed as discipline master..at..the Police Orphanage.