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Anger

The Meaning of Resentment

It's an emotion word that hurts.

Key points

  • The words people use for emotions influence the ways they think about emotions.
  • The word "resentment" has negative connotations that can make legitimate anger seem unreasonable.
  • Calling anger resentment turns potential social failings to individual ones.
RODNAE Productions/Pexels
Source: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

Laurie Anderson has famously sung that “Language Is a Virus,” and nowhere is her insight truer than in the realm of emotion words. Emotion labels slip in and out of vogue, and lately, “resentment” has been arising with a disturbing frequency. Merriam-Webster defines this complex emotion as “a feeling of indignant displeasure or persistent ill will at something regarded as a wrong, insult, or injury.”

Etymologically, “resent” has come to English from French and, originally, from Latin, composed of the prefix “re-” plus “sentire” (“to feel”). Some etymological dictionaries interpret the “re-” as an intensifying prefix, but “re-” literally means “again.” People who feel resentment experience an insult again. And again. And again—for years, sometimes for decades. Few English words for emotions carry such negative connotations.

Feeling resentment runs against the advice of most American self-help books. One should learn to let go and move on, to laugh at oneself (Johnson 1999, 45). One should not nurse anger, seek revenge, or bear grudges. One should not blame other people or social circumstances for one’s problems.

One should look in the mirror. One should not regard oneself as a victim. Supposedly, it is counter-productive to feel long-term anger toward people who have done one harm.

In the “Why I Am So Wise” section of Ecce Homo, 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche ironically attributed his wisdom to “freedom from ressentiment,” a concept distinct from, but related to, resentment in which a weaker creature feels chronic anger toward a stronger one (Nietzsche 45). Metaphorically, Nietzsche proposed that ressentiment works like a sickness so that avoiding it should be a matter of hygiene (Nietzsche 45-46). In Western cultures, resentment and its cousin, ressentiment, carry connotations of weakness, immaturity, and lack of character.

Not everyone’s simmering anger receives the “resentment” label. In examples of how to use “resentment” in a sentence, Merriam-Webster includes “She bore bitter feelings of resentment toward her ex-husband,” and “He’s filled with resentment at his boss” (Merriam-Webster). People tend to apply “resentment” to the feelings that less powerful individuals harbor toward more powerful ones: anger that may have accumulated for years because it cannot be directly expressed.

Source: Carolyn_Sewell, "BItter, Caustic & Resentful, But Not Angry 1," flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Creative Commons
"Bitter, Caustic & Resentful, But Not Angry 1," by Carolyn_Sewell
Source: Carolyn_Sewell, "BItter, Caustic & Resentful, But Not Angry 1," flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Creative Commons

Historian Ute Frevert writes that until the 18th century, “Rage had been seen as a feature of the powerful. Only those at the top could afford and enact it. They alone had the power to let others feel their rage” (Frevert 2011, 92). Expressing anger has different consequences depending on one’s social position in workplaces and relationships. Sociologist Warren D. TenHouten characterizes resentment as a blend of anger, fear, disappointment, and disgust (TenHouten 2007, 193).

People described as resentful don't often have much chance to protest. A child may resent the birth of a younger sibling, for whose care he or she may become responsible. An adult may resent caring for aging parents while his or her siblings dodge the responsibility. A parent may resent having to perform household duties while his or her partner engages in travel, education, and fulfilling work. An employee may resent disrespectful, humiliating treatment.

Resentment builds when one can’t quit a job or yell back at an abuser for fear of homelessness or physical violence. Resentment is an emotion of socioeconomic entrapment, of anger at work unfairly foisted onto one that one cannot avoid. In U.S. culture—to put it crudely—resentment is the emotion of a loser.

In Banned Emotions, I analyzed how emotion metaphors help to make some emotions so stigmatizing that many people suppress emotions which might fuel a fight against injustice. Self-pity, for example, has long been characterized through metaphors of paralysis, stagnation, darkness, dirt, and foul smells (Otis 2019). In Ugly Feelings, literary scholar Sianne Ngai studied the “rats and possums rather than lions” of human emotions, among which she included envy (Ngai 2005, 6). As Ngai points out, as soon as the word “envy” comes into play, attention is diverted from the social injustice that may have caused the emotion to the faulty character of the person feeling it (Ngai 2005, 128). In Ngai’s perceptively drawn metaphor, some emotions (such as rage) receive the awe and respect given to lions, whereas others (such as envy) warrant calls to exterminators.

Resentment (a skunk, maybe?) falls in the latter category. Calling anger "resentment" invalidates the emotions of people who may have good reasons to be angry. Denying the legitimacy of this emotion can smother criticism of unfair social practices (Ngai 2005, 129).

“Resent” often arises in discussions of childcare and eldercare, now that the COVID pandemic has highlighted the inequitable distribution of domestic labor and the lack of social support networks. Calling anger "resentment" turns social failings into individual ones, shaming people when they object to unfair circumstances (Ngai 2005, 129). It has saddened me to hear my female friends applying the word “resent” to themselves and their mothers, although the issues surrounding this word reach far beyond women.

One friend described her mother cooking full meals for her family and resenting it. Her mother may well have felt resentment, but I would rather hear another word used for a person angry at the unequal division of unwaged, reproductive labor. Consider the difference between these two sentences:

  • Jeff resented having to care for the twins while Donna went on a business trip to LA.
  • Jeff felt angry that he had to care for the twins while Donna went on a business trip to LA.

Substituting “felt angry” for “resented” turns implied selfishness into a legitimate challenge to a potentially unfair situation. It turns a skunk into a lion and a stink into a roar.

I am not advocating that we ban the word “resent.” Attempts to mold thought by censoring language bring to mind George Orwell’s 1984 and disrespect people’s intelligence and human rights. I am just asking that we think carefully about the words we use to label emotions—about all of their connotations, their tendencies to provoke or shut down thought.

Laurie Anderson had a point. Language does work like a virus that enters living systems and uses them to reproduce itself. People are saying “resent” because they are hearing the word frequently, and, distracted and exhausted, they are reproducing what they hear. Language does influence people’s ideas about emotions and social practices, but it can’t fully determine thought. I recommend thinking hard before calling anger "resentment" because of the harm that word can do.

References

Anderson, L. (1986). “Language Is a Virus.” Home of the Brave. Cinecom Pictures.

Frevert, Ute. (2011). Emotions in History—Lost and Found. Budapest; New York: Central European University Press.

Johnson, Spencer. (1999). Who Moved My Cheese? London: Vermillion.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Resentment. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved July 25, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resentment.

Ngai, Sianne. (2005). Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1979). Ecce Homo. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. London; New York: Penguin.

Online Etymological Dictionary. (n. d.). Resent. In Online Etymological Dictionary. Retrieved July 25, 2021, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/resent.

TenHouten, Warren D. (2007). A General Theory of Emotions and Social Life. London; New York: Routledge.

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