The term ‘discourse’ has become common currency in a variety of disciplines: critical theory, sociology, linguistics, philosophy, social psychology and many other fields, so much so that it is frequently left undefined, as if its usage were simply common knowledge. It is used widely in analysing literary and non-literary texts and it is often employed to signal a certain theoretical sophistication in ways which are vague and sometimes obfuscatory. It has perhaps the widest range of possible significations of any term in literary and cultural theory, and yet it is often the term within theoretical texts which is least defined. It is interesting therefore to trace the ways in which we try to make sense of the term. The most obvious way to track down its range of meanings is through consulting a dictionary, but here the more general meanings of the term and its more theoretical usages seem to have become enmeshed, since the theoretical meanings always have an overlaying of the more general meanings. The history of the development of the general use of the term has been chequered; if we take even the simplest route through its history we can see a shifting from the highlighting of one aspect of usage to another:
discourse 1. verbal communication; talk, conversation; 2. a formal treatment of a subject in speech or writing; 3. a unit of text used by linguists for the analysis of linguistic phenomena that range over more than one sentence; 4. to discourse: the ability to reason (archaic); 5. to discourse on/upon: to speak or write about formally; 6. to hold a discussion; 7. to give forth (music) (archaic) (14th century, from Medieval Latin. discursus: argument, from Latin, a running to and fro discurrere)
discourse: 1. a conversation, especially of a formal nature; formal and orderly expression of ideas in speech or writing; also such expression in the form of a sermon, treatise, etc.; a piece or unit of connected speech or writing (Middle English: discours, from Latin: act of running about)
This sense of the general usage of discourse as having to do with conversation and ‘holding forth’ on a subject, or giving a speech, has been partly due to the etymology of the word. However, it has also been due to the fact that this is the core meaning of the term discours in French, and since the 1960s it is a word which has been associated with French philosophical thought, even though the terms discours and discourse do not correspond to one another exactly. Thus a French/English dictionary gives us:
discours: a) speech; tous ces beaux discours: all this fine talk (pejorative); suis moi sans faire de discours: follow me and no arguing! perdre son temps en discours: to waste one’s time talking; b) discours direct/indirect: direct/indirect speech (linguistics); c) discourse: (philosophical treatise); discourir: faire un discours: to discourse; to hold forth upon; to chat (pejorative)
During the 1960s the general meaning of the term, its philosophical meaning and a new set of more theoretical meanings began to diverge slightly, but these more general meanings have always been kept in play, inflecting the theoretical meanings in particular ways.