Saturday, 26 November 2011

Oppress, suppress, repress: What’s the difference?

Dear Philippa

You've asked me about the difference between oppress, repress and suppress.  

My instinct is always to reach for the dictionary to confirm my understanding or hunches before I start knock together an article on the difference between the meaning and use of similar/confusable words. This time I decided to commit my understanding to paper first and then go to the dictionary to see how right or wrong I was – just for fun!

Interestingly (but hardly surprisingly), mother-tongue speakers are normally better at thinking of examples or situations in which words are generally used rather than trying to figure out dictionary-type definitions of them. It was no different with me in this case. These were my instinctive responses:

Meanings according to Pietermaritzburg me

Oppress is usually used in a broadly (socio-) political sense; e.g. a ruling party, or majority race, or dominant socio-economic group may oppress other groups, i.e. keep them “down”, deny them certain privileges, prevent their advancement, or maybe even deliberately and systematically subject them to more or less severe hardships.

Repress is something I associate with something in the psychological sphere: it’s not what someone else does to me, but what I do to myself, like repressing feelings, emotions, responses.

Suppress … Mmm, I can also suppress feelings, etc., so what’s the difference between repress and suppress? … My conclusion is that repression is more severe or intense than suppression. I could conceivably turn suppression of my emotions on and off at will, as it were, but if I don’t turn them off, then prolonged or repeated suppression can become repression, which is a condition, then, rather than an action arising from choice. Suppression can also relate to physical things, like suppressing a sneeze or a laugh or an exclamation, whereas repression is purely mental/emotional/psychological.

I’ve just written this off the cuff, in a few minutes, and will not review the content, even though I’m tempted to – I often miss some important fact or nuance the first time.

Now to the dictionary definitions. To keep it simple and brief, I’ll start with the 2008 Concise Oxford on my bookshelf and go to others only if I feel I need to.

Meanings according to the Oxford lexicographers

Oppress: 1 keep in subjection and hardship. 2 make distressed or anxious. (…) Oppressive: 1 harsh or authoritarian. 2 weighing heavily on the mind or spirits. 3 (of weather) close or sultry.

Repress: 1 subdue by force. 2 restrain, prevent or inhibit. > suppress (a thought, feeling or desire) in oneself so that it becomes or remains unconscious. 3 (Biology) prevent the transcription of (a gene).

Suppress: 1 forcibly put an end to. 2 prevent from being expressed or published. > (Psychoanalysis) consciously avoid thinking of (an unpleasant idea or memory). 3 prevent or inhibit (a process or phenomenon).

So … clearly a few meanings I missed there in my off-the-cuff response; maybe I would have thought of some of them if I’d given myself a bit more time, but I doubt whether some of the others (especially the more specialised or technical ones) would ever have occurred to me. Then, of course, there’s the way I expressed my definitions; some of the dictionary meanings are there in my descriptions, but one almost has to read between the lines to see that I was sometimes trying to say the same thing as was said by that far more erudite, articulate and accurate Oxfordian collective!

Anyway, Philippa, thanks for the question. I hope this little exercise has helped. It certainly taught me a few lessons!


No comments: