Which Word Wednesday: Oppress vs. Suppress

By July 20, 2011 language No Comments

If we lived in isolation, there would be no need for Which Word Wednesday. (And how sad our Wednesdays would be!) With no one to talk to, everything we thought or spoke aloud to ourselves would make sense. There would be no miscommunications or misunderstandings. It is in community that word choice is important for communicating in a way that others will understand our intent.

So I love it when the community contributes entries for this post series! Today’s match-up between oppress and suppress has had two requests now! Must be a common mind-bender. Let’s kick it off with definitions from the Oxford American Dictionary:

oppress :: verb
keep (someone) in subservience and hardship, esp. by the unjust exercise of authority; cause (someone) to feel distressed, anxious, or uncomfortable

suppress :: verb
forcibly put an end to; prevent the development, action, or expression of (a feeling, impulse, idea, etc.); restrain

It seems that oppress refers to someone’s unjust force upon another person. I think of hostages being oppressed by terrorists or enslaved women oppressed by brothel owners.

Suppress doesn’t include the descriptor unjust, which makes me believe suppress isn’t as negative as oppress. In common usage, suppress is more often used when you personally restrain your own feelings or impulses.

None of my language books offered entries on oppress vs. suppress, so we’re left to our own devices for sorting out the differences. After a quick Web search, I found this explanation from searchwarp.com. It tosses in a third word to the mix—repress; see if this helps our discovery:

Oppress means to burden, weigh heavily on, or press upon. Repress, means to keep under control, hold back, or reduce. Suppress, refers to putting an end to, doing away with, or keeping something hidden. Although the meanings are very similar there are small distinct differences governing their proper use. Repress and suppress are often used to describe emotions, as well as actions, while oppress is used almost exclusively in a political context or when describing something that has an almost physical sensation of weight.

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What’s my WWW verdict? You can suppress your own emotions, and you can be forced to suppress them if an unjust political system is causing you to be oppressed.

What’s your verdict? Does that clear up the confusion between oppress and suppress? Do you have any tricks for using the correct word for the context? Do share in the comments.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. “Nuances in Language: Are They Being Suppressed or Oppressed.” Sourced July 20, 2011, http://searchwarp.com/swa40964.htm.

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