The difference between protest and dissent

“South Africa’s president endorsed Zimbabwe’s government Tuesday, ignoring reports of human right abuses by the military to crush persistent dissent in the neighboring country,” the news article said. Later, it talked about violence in Zimbabwe when “the military again opened fire to put down anti-government protests.”

Protesters dissent, and dissenters protest. Is there a difference?

Of course, or this wouldn’t be a column.

ICYMI: How we got the terms postlude, prelude, and interlude

Both “protest” and “dissent” can be a noun or a verb. Add a suffix and you have a “dissenter” or a “protester.” (Only one, though can be spelled a different way: You can be a “protestor,” but not a “dissentor.”)

They both mean to express displeasure with something, usually of a political or social nature. In legal terms, a “dissent” meant to express a minority view. (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a special “dissent collar” when she disagrees with a Supreme Court ruling. It’s really called a “jabot,” but let’s not argue about that here..)

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Merriam-Webster says that the noun “dissent” is “a difference of opinion,” with other definitions including “political opposition to a government or its policies.” The intransitive verb is “to withhold assent or approval.” (Yes, “assent” is an antonym to “dissent.”)

The verb form was the earliest to come in to English, the Oxford English Dictionary says, in the early 15th century. It comes from the Latin “sentīre”—to feel or think—with the negative prefix “dis-.” Its earliest use was to “withhold assent or consent from a proposal.” The noun version first appeared in the late 16th century, in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. (If you’re wondering, there were noun and verb forms of “sent” with no prefixes. They both meant “assent,” the OED says, though they are now thankfully obsolete.)

“Protest” traces both its noun and verb forms to the 15th century, again with the verb leading the way by a few years. But its earliest verb use, the OED says, was a now-obsolete legal term “protest for,” meaning “petition, advance a claim; to put forward a protestation.” “Protestation” itself at the time meant “A condition or reservation put forward to protect the rights or interests of a party in a lawsuit,” the OED says. It didn’t mean “disagree”; that usage didn’t come into about 1550, the OED says: “to make a formal (often written) declaration against a proposal, decision, etc.” (Italics are the OED’s.)

Around 1850, “protest” took on the meaning we see most commonly today: “Of a (large) number of people: to express collective disapproval or dissent publicly, typically by means of an organized demonstration; to engage in a mass protest, usually against a government policy or legal decision.” That’s an intransitive verb, meaning you don’t have to “protest” something. The OED also has a “chiefly US” transitive version, “To object to (an action or event); to challenge or contest; (also) to make the subject of a public protest or demonstration.”

Think of a “protest” as a public demonstration of “dissent.”

“Dissent” is often the subject of government regulation. Authoritarian governments seek to quell “dissent” whether it is expressed through “protests” or in rhetoric, as we see in the Zimbabwe passage quoted above. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, known for cracking down on opponents, claims that “dissent” is fine, but “protest” is not: “‘Wala naman kung dissent lang…those are just expression. I need more overt acts,’ Duterte said, referring to chants to oust him during rallies, and that rebellion is another matter.”

Harvard has “Protest and Dissent” guidelines. It’s fine to “dissent” during someone’s speech with silent actions, picketing, or “otherwise protesting noiselessly,” the guidelines say, “unless the protest interferes with the audience’s view or prevents the audience from paying attention to the speaker.” Once the “dissent” becomes disruptive, it’s a “protest.”

One more word to discuss: “dissident.” Like its cousin “dissent,” it began it English life as a mere difference of opinion, an adjective first seen around the mid-16th century. The noun form showed up late in the 18th century, the OED says, in a religious context: The kingdom of Poland labeled as a “dissident” anyone who was not a Roman Catholic.

Political “dissidents” showed up around 1950, the OED says, to mean “Disagreeing in political matters; voicing political dissent, usually in a totalitarian state.” That totalitarianism angle persists in the OED entry, last updated in 1989, but Merriam-Webster says “dissidents” are people merely “disagreeing especially with an established religious or political system, organization, or belief.” No totalitarianism required.

“Dissident” has more of a political tint than “protester,” and, if Nexis is any judge, “dissident” is more likely to be applied to someone “protesting” policies of a foreign government than those of United States. Everyone who is “protesting” is probably “dissenting,” but not every “protester” is a “dissident.”

ICYMI: The term ‘shoddy’ used to have a different meaning

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.