Amateur Linguistics

Two Words That Aren’t Synonyms

Systemic and systematic. Maybe I need to start writing them like “systemic” and “systemATic”. Or “system@ic. I honestly don’t know how I can more effectively circumvent this problem, which I have experienced in countless enraging conversations that have produced absolutely fantastic trichotillomanic urges on the part of all parties involved, every time. These two words are not synonyms, and yet whenever I use one, no matter how I confront the misuse of the other in the reply, I find myself in derailing arguments about definition. My blood begins frothing, because I’m not a dictionary. If someone can’t be bothered to do a Google search for a word they are admitting they don’t understand, then I can’t be bothered to treat them the same way as someone who appears to be engaging the subject sincerely.

If I say systemic, I get systematic repeated back to me; and if I say systematic, I get systemic repeated back to me.

When I say systematic, as in deliberate and controlled action, I get this stunned response from my audience, who collectively agrees that I’m talking about the meaning of the word systemic but doing it wrong as if I’m actively trying to just confuse and alienate them all on purpose.

When I say systemic, as in part of a far-reaching and interdependent network, I get the same stunned response from my audience, who this time collectively agree that I’m talking about the meaning of the word systematic.

Then I’m the one blamed for all of this confusion — and the best part is when I’m blamed for my own experience of rabid frustration at speaking and seeing that people can observe that I’m producing words either with my keyboard or my mouth, but not feeling heard by those very same people. People who just keep steering the conversation into something else entirely, every time it’s their turn to speak.

Well I hate to break it to you, but like the words automaton and autonomaton, systemic and systematic sound similar (and even look similar in writing), but mean radically different things. It is an extremely frustrating experience to be choosing my words as carefully and deliberately as I have learned to, over time, and to be talked back to like I said something that bears a completely different meaning. And I’m a goddamned writer, so when I say I choose my words carefully and deliberately, I’m not just blowing a temper tantrum, being fussy, or getting nit-picky for the sake of… whatever the fuck anyone else gets nit-picky for (I imagine one typically gets nit-picky for the express purpose of removing lice and similar parasitic insects at all life stages).

I’m not a linguist, but I’m very interested in language (especially unconscious and often ignorant misuses of language and the way these mistakes are more often defended than conceded). I’m not a poststructuralist, but I’m inspired by the work of interrogating our language choices (especially our default language selections for things we feel very negatively towards), and observing how this can actually fundamentally change the patterns of our thought processes over time. In other words, language is really, really important to me. I don’t make or apply my distinctive selections without thinking. I only wish more people would start thinking about their own vocabulary (maybe then my particular selections, and those of similarly disadvantaged people, would stand out more).

But back to the two words that aren’t the same, because they aren’t even two words of the same animal.

I came to understand the meaning of the word systematic in relation to general applications of science and the scientific method. Synonyms for systematic include words like methodical, efficient, thorough, and organized. But the word also has uses outside of science, such as in my experiences with being bullied in school by virtually every single student in the entire institution, every single day of every single year that I attended public schools. And that includes the first college I went to — in the second, I was systematically bullied in certain classes (e.g., accelerated format organic chemistry) while not at all in others (e.g., anthropology of sex and gender). Another example of where we see an appropriate use of the word systematic is when cops work through a list of possible suspects in order to rule a majority of people out before proceeding with a more thorough investigation of a smaller group of individuals. And a specific example that is not my own direct individual experience but that is familiar to a lot of feminists, skeptics, atheists, anti-theists, and men’s rights activists, is the response Rebecca Watson received after generally advising men not to try to pick up women they haven’t so much as spoken to all day or night once they are isolated together at 4 a.m. in a confined space. She was systematically targeted for all sorts of utterly heinous messages and threats (and many female skeptics and feminists have been since, for standing up alongside her).

Meanwhile, I came to understand the meaning of the word systemic in relation to medicine first and feminism later. Synonyms for systemic include words like pervasive, epidemic/pandemic (obviously when not referring to an individual organism but entire communities/societies), widespread, and infectious or virulent. And for the sake of fuck, even when using Google to search for synonyms for systemic, just to jog my brain a bit, the first search result is a list of synonyms for the word systematic! Search results for synonyms for the word systemic are almost completely absent, often merely self-referential and nothing more than a listing of reportive definitions instead of actual thesaurus entries. I had to get a little creative with my synonyms.

In medicine, the word systemic refers to something affecting the whole body, such as an acute/sudden onset of an infection that is causing multiple organ dysfunction/failure. Like bacterial septicemia for instance, or a malevolent cancer that has rapidly metastasized from a relatively isolated location (a particular part of a particular organ) to multiple different locations in many organ systems throughout the body. In feminism, conceptualizing the human body as an organized, interdependent network of various systems which each have specific functions and are all constructed from individual cells, is a useful analogy for understanding what the word systemic means and when/why it is chosen over the word systematic. We can think of all the individual people within a given society as the cells, and different institutions of society (such as the government, the economy, academia, the physical structures of society itself, and pop culture as both a cause and effect of dominant societal attitudes) as the various organs. Everything is interdependent. Everything is connected. Thus when one states that both oppression and privilege are systemic, and are complementary and mutually dependent, this is the scale of the idea that is being communicated (to suggest nothing of the variable magnitude). In other words, oppression and privilege are not in any way localized. Ever.

Yet, what I just said there is precisely the conversation where this swapping of terms always seems to arise, and that is precisely why it makes me foam at the mouth as soon as the standardized Dictionary Definition Derailing Procedure© is deployed. The problem of diluting the very concept of privilege (but especially of oppression) is going to be another post entirely.

Until then, I really hope this entry adequately sums up how fucking infuriating it is to see phrases tossed about like “systematic privilege” or “systemic bullying”. If your privilege was systematic, you would think you would become acutely aware of it, so I wouldn’t have to tell you every time it’s exposed to me while you play obtuse! And if ever there was bullying that was systemic, don’t you think we would use a little stronger terminology, such as “discrimination”? The only subtlety in the difference between these two words, which are not interchangeable at all, is in their spelling and pronunciation. They mean completely different things!

Please stop making me smack my own face and grab handfuls of my hair as you tell me what an asshole or terrible writer I am for getting angry that you don’t understand what I just so carefully stated. If you can’t differentiate between these two words, I clearly can’t have a conversation with you and expect to be heard (in which case, you’re just lecturing me or giving me a sermon — we wouldn’t actually be having a discussion). Of course I’m going to get angry! I picket churches—I don’t go sit in the pews.

One thought on “Two Words That Aren’t Synonyms

  1. Pingback: Diluting Oppression | HaifischGeweint

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