v. re·pressed, re·press·ing, re·press·es
1. To hold back or prevent by an act of volition: couldn't repress a smirk.
a. To put down or subdue by force: repress a rebellion.
b. To end, limit, or restrain, as by intimidation or other action: repress a heresy; repress inflation.
3. Psychology To exclude (painful or disturbing memories, for example) automatically or unconsciously from the conscious mind.
a. To prevent (the transcription of a gene or the synthesis of a protein) by the combination of a protein with an operator gene.
b. To prevent or limit the synthesis of (a protein).
To take repressive action.
[Middle English repressen, from Latin reprimere, repress- : re-, re- + premere, to press; see per-4 in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]
Usage Note: Repress and suppress have similar meanings, but there are subtle differences that are worth paying attention to. Both share the general sense of holding back or subduing something, but repress suggests keeping something under control to maintain or regulate order, while suppress suggests a more active curtailment, an active fight against an opposing force. Thus, The government repressed the rebellion implies that the government always maintained control and that the rebellious forces never posed a serious threat to governmental power before being put down, while The government suppressed the rebellion suggests that a significant rebellion was under way and that the government had to react strongly to put an end to it. Similarly, one might repress (rather than suppress) a smirk in order to maintain a serious appearance, and one would take a medicine that suppresses (rather than represses) a cough in order to reduce its severity. · Both words also see use in psychology, and here a similar distinction prevails. Repress generally means "to exclude painful or disturbing memories automatically or unconsciously from the conscious mind." Suppress means "to exclude unacceptable desires or thoughts deliberately from the mind." Using repress to express a conscious effort, as in For years he tried to repress his frightful memories, is thus incorrect.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2020 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices
Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:
The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.