Smother and suffocate

Eugens

Senior Member
Argentina Spanish
Hello!

I would like to know if, when talking about stopping someone from breathing, "smother" means to do so only by putting something over the person's face and "suffocate" to asphyxiate someone in a more general way (i.e. using other methods too). Or can "smother" and "suffocate" be used interchangeably when they mean to prevent someone from breathing?
 
  • elroy

    Imperfect Mod
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    I would go with "suffocate." "Smother" is more like "stifle"; it doesn't necessarily mean "to prevent someone from breathing." Furthermore, it can be used figuratively - you can smother someone with praise, for example.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Smother and suffocate, in the sense of stopping someone breathing, are more or less equivalent. Suffocate is much less often used in the figurative sense that Elroy has mentioned. (OED references)

    I have a feeling, no more than that, that in the figurative sense smother can be used in a fairly positive sense - smothered with praise, smothered with kisses, smothered with love; but suffocate would have a more negative connotation.
     

    Eugens

    Senior Member
    Argentina Spanish
    Thank you. Your responses always make me learn... but I guess my question wasn't clear enough. I'll try to express myself better.
    I posted this question because I read this in my dictionary:
    smother
    2. to kill someone by putting something over their face to stop them breathing
    -see also suffocate
    A teenage mother was accused of smothering her 3-month-old daughter.
    It also says, in other meanings:
    smother
    3.to stop yourself from showing your feelings or from doing an action
    -synonym stifle
    The girls tried to smother their giggles.
    4. to give someone so much love and attention that they feel as if they are not free and become unhappy
    I don't want him to feel smothered.
    (Hm, I have just noticed that "stifle" doesn't appear as a synomyn for the 4th meaning, that's wrong, isn't it?)

    My question is if when "smother" literally means to attempt to kill someone by depriving him/her of oxygen (2nd meaning), this word specifically entails to do so by covering the person's mouth and nose.
    I have the impression that "suffocate" is more general, because my dictionary says:
    suffocate
    1. to die or make someone die by preventing them from breathing
    The animal seizes its prey by the throat and suffocates it to death.
    Unlike "smother", it doesn't say anything about the oxygen deprivation's having to be by covering the person's (or animal's) face. That difference was what caught my attention.
    So, is there really a difference (when talking about ways of attempting to literally kill someone)? Can one be suffocated by hanging, drowning, breathing air filled with CO, having one's face covered with a pillow, etc; but one only can be smothered by having one's face covered by a pillow, plastic bag or some other object?

    I would like to also ask about "stifle". Are "smother" and "stifle" synomys only when they are used figuratively?

    My dictionary also says:
    Stifle
    3. if you are stifled by something, it stops you breathing comfortably
    He was almost stifled by the fumes.
    Could I say He was almost smothered by the fumes? (A positive response to this question would cancel the other and make me distrust my dictionary very much:p )
    Thank you.
     

    nd23

    Member
    English - US
    Hi Eugens.

    I would never say someone was smothered by fumes. To me smother in the literal sense has connotations of covering someone's face with a pillow or something until they can no longer breathe.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    My feeling about smother was that it had to do with preventing breathing by placing something over the mouth and nose - Eugens (2).

    Eugens' post prompted me to check, and I discovered that the original meaning of smother was quite specific - meaning to suffocate with smoke. The verb form derived from the noun smother: meaning dense, suffocating smoke.

    I speculate - and it's only speculation - that our feeling that smother means "covering the nose and mouth" is more general than the OED suggests (I can feel the lightning bolt being aimed as I type) comes from the very broad range of other meanings that smother has attracted over the centuries. All of them seem to have begun as a figurative extension of the original smother (noun) - applying the original sense of an all-enveloping cloud of smoke to other contexts.
     

    fenixpollo

    moderator
    American English
    Eugens said:
    (Hm, I have just noticed that "stifle" doesn't appear as a synomyn for the 4th meaning, that's wrong, isn't it?) :tick: You're right... stifle should be there.

    My question is if when "smother" literally means to attempt to kill someone by depriving him/her of oxygen (2nd meaning), this word specifically entails to do so by covering the person's mouth and nose. :tick:
    I have the impression that "suffocate" is more general, :tick:

    So, is there really a difference (when talking about ways of attempting to literally kill someone)? Can one be suffocated by hanging, drowning, breathing air filled with CO, having one's face covered with a pillow, etc; but one only can be smothered by having one's face covered by a pillow, plastic bag or some other object? :tick: That's my understanding.

    I would like to also ask about "stifle". Are "smother" and "stifle" synomys only when they are used figuratively? :tick:

    My dictionary also says:
    Could I say He was almost smothered by the fumes? :cross: "overcome" by fumes is better
    I agree with your interpretation, Eugens.

    Cheers.
     
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