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Discipline is pronounced with a silent '-c-'. The first syllable is stressed, and the three syllables all have the same vowel sound as 'it' (IPA: /ˈdɪs ɪ plɪn/). The adjective disciplinary has the stress on the third syllable: IPA: /dɪs ɪ ˈplɪn ə rɪ/, and the agent-noun disciplinarian, which can also be used as an adjective, has the stress on the fourth syllable: IPA: /dɪs ɪ plɪn ˈeɪ rɪ ən/. This means 'one who enforces discipline', usually with the connotation 'strictly'. Disciplinary is applied to discipline generally; the adjective disciplinarian usually to strict action or behaviour.

The noun discipline now has two main strands of meaning. Both follow its origin (the same as that of disciple, the Latin discipulus ~ 'pupil, student').

  • First is "A branch of instruction or education; a department of learning or knowledge; a science or art in its educational aspect" (OED). This is mostly used in institutions of learning, like schools and universities: one can say that "Maths is a fundamental discipline in schools", or talk of Botany and Zoology as the two great disciplines of Biology. (OED points out that "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.")
  • Second, "Discipline is the practice of making people obey rules or standards of behaviour, and punishing them when they do not" (Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner's English Dictionary|COBUILD, 2006). From this general strand develop the following more detailed meanings:
    • Military discipline is 'soldierly conduct' and absolute obedience to orders. It includes smartness, drill etc, and is supposed to make troops stay in their post even in times of extreme danger. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, this involved flogging in the British army and navy.
    • School discipline is the training of young people in schools to follow the codes of conduct laid down, obeying adults, punctuality and hard work. In the UK, this traditionally involved uniform dress codes, and boring repetitive impositions (or punishments) such as copying of poetry or 'lines' such as "I must behave in class" 100 times, as a punishment, as well as the threat or use of corporal punishment: it no longer does.
    • Ecclesiastical discipline is the way in which Christian churches attempt to control their members.
      • One meaning transferred from this was 'the instrument of corporal punishment', and specifically in some Christian sects the whip or scourge with which members beat themselves, to mortify the flesh, which they believed to be innately evil, and to punish themselves for their sins; "An instrument of chastisement; a whip, a scourge; esp[ecially] one used for religious penance" (OED, 2013).
    • From these two came the use of discipline to mean (predominantly corporal) punishment. "In its monastic use," observes OED, "the earliest English sense."
    • Self-discipline is the goal at which these aim: developing adult citizens able to behave in accordance with the society in which they live.