By Dr Oliver Tearle
To be ‘submissive’ is to submit: to yield obediently to some higher or greater power or authority, and allow oneself to be dominated by that higher power. So people are sometimes described as having a submissive personality or behaving in a submissive way. (The word submit is from Latin words meaning ‘to put under’, because someone who is submissive allows themselves to be put under the authority of someone else.)
But what other ways are there of describing or conveying this submissive quality within a person? How else can we talk about submissiveness if, for instance, we don’t want to overuse the word itself? Below, we introduce some of the best synonyms for the word ‘submissive’.
If you submit to another’s authority, you might also be said to defer to them. Since defer and submit are such close synonyms of each other, it makes sense that the adjective DEFERENTIAL might serve as a synonym for submissive.
The word defer is from the Latin meaning ‘to bear away’ or ‘to carry down’, so even its etymology is similar to submit. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for deferential is from Sir Walter Scott’s 1822 novel The Fortunes of Nigel: ‘If you seek deferential observance and attendance, I tell you at once you will not find them here.’
However, a deferential person may be doing nothing more than showing someone else polite courtesy: they might be showing respect to someone else, but hardly conceding power to them.
The word DOCILE, by contrast, conveys precisely that. It initially meant ‘capable of being taught’, so one might talk about a docile pupil or an animal that is docile because it can be controlled or trained. The word is from the Latin docēre which means ‘to teach’.
From this initial meaning, in the fifteenth century, the word came to mean someone who was submissive to training (which, when you think about it, makes sense) and, by extension, someone TRACTABLE, MANAGEABLE, or MALLEABLE.
And while we’re considering such words, both BIDDABLE and AMENABLE are further synonyms for both docile and submissive.
What does biddable mean? What does being submissive have to do with bidding? And what kind of bidding – at an auction?
No: instead, someone who is biddable is ready and WILLING to do what is ‘bidden’ of them, i.e., what is commanded of them. We know the phrase do as you are bid; this is the same root that gives us the adjective biddable.
So if someone is docile, they can be wrapped around your little finger.
Of course, some people will go out of their way to please others, or avoid displeasing them. Such a person can be described as OBLIGING or ACCOMMODATING, with both of these words carrying a positive and polite meaning: one might, in a review of one’s stay in a hotel, describe a hotel manager who couldn’t do enough for you as being obliging or (literally) accommodating.
A pair of words worth mentioning in this connection is ACQUIESCENT and COMPLAISANT. To acquiesce in something means to agree to it; technically, one agrees to something but acquiesces in it. So somebody acquiescent is agreeable and ready to submit to someone’s will or requests. Complaisant should not be confused with ‘complacent’ (complaisant should be pronounced com-play-zent rather than com-play-sent), and means the same thing.
Somebody who is SUBSERVIENT, however, displays a slavish desire to serve someone else: a subservient person is only too happy to adopt a subordinate position. The word means exactly what it says: to be subservient is to serve under another.
A similar focus on serving, or being another’s servant, is present in the word SERVILE, which has even stronger negative connotations. Someone who is servile is not merely OBEDIENT but is positively OBSEQUIOUS or FAWNING, falling over themselves in a disgustingly INGRATIATING manner to try to please or serve another person.
If someone is happy to go along with another’s orders, commands, or requests, they can also be described as YIELDING or COMPLIANT. So, one might talk about how compliant with the police investigation a murder suspect has been, for instance. Such a person goes along with the requests directed towards them in an UNCOMPLAINING manner.
Although to be submissive to, or compliant with, someone else’s demands doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is also HUMBLE, MEEK, or PASSIVE, submissiveness often does also entail passivity or humility: a sense of not being worthy of the higher power’s attention. Someone who is submissive to God is happy to submit to his will and accept their humility in the face of a supernatural deity. So these character traits often (if not always) go hand-in-hand.
Finally, let’s conclude this pick of the best submissive synonyms with another sub- word: SUBDUED. This can be used to describe someone who is quiet and seems cowed by something: someone subdued has been overcome, vanquished, and reduced to a submissive state.
However, observing that somebody seems a bit subdued is undoubtedly more tactful and polite than pointing out that they seem to be quite submissive – at least, in many contexts.