Broke vs. Poor

by Broke Grad on March 21, 2008

In elementary school, we are taught the difference between the denotation and connotation of a word. For those of you who may have missed that day, the denotation is the literal meaning of a word, and the connotation is the emotional association attached to word in addition to the literal meaning. The connotation of a word is subjective and varies based on cultural differences.

Because of connotation, you can use two words that mean the exact same thing, but get a totally different reaction based on which word you choose. Take two words you constantly hear when people talk about money — broke and poor. According to the dictionary and thesaurus, broke and poor mean the exact same thing, but if you ask someone whether they would rather be broke or poor, I think most people would be able to give you an answer.

Broke and poor may be interchangeable, but the feeling the words convey are completely different. Imagine if I had called myself Poor Grad Student, instead of Broke Grad Student. Would you think differently of me?

I feel that broke describes a temporary state of affairs. I may be broke now, but I will not always be broke in the future. On the other hand, poor seems to describe a more permanent condition. Someone who is poor is likely to stay poor in the future. The word poor evokes a sense of hopelessness, while the word broke still elicits a sense of hope.

Not surprisingly, I’d prefer being broke over being poor any day of the week. I’ve felt broke many times throughout college, but I’ve never felt poor. I chose the name Broke Grad Student, because I am hopeful that I’ll get out of my student debt in a reasonable amount of time.

What do the words broke and poor mean to you?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Minimum Wage March 21, 2008 at 4:43 am

When I think of broke, I think somebody overspent.

2 Sia March 21, 2008 at 8:21 am

I agree with both of you. Being broke means that one can always get better (e.g. not broke). I know a lot of friends who say they’re broke this month but get a lot more positive when they know they’ll get their monthly allowance soon. As for being poor, that doesn’t only have to be financially…

3 Donna Freedman July 23, 2008 at 10:07 pm

In Dick Gregory’s autobiography, he noted that his mother would smile and say, “We ain’t poor, we’re just broke.” Broke, he explained, was a temporary situation; poor was more of a life sentence. Even though his family lived in a slum and didn’t have enough to eat and lost utility service because they couldn’t pay, their mom never let them feel like lesser human beings.
When I wrote an article called “Living ‘Poor’ and Loving It” (and no, I don’t write the headlines), I noted that I didn’t consider myself poor because I had so much relative to so many other people in the world: food, shelter, family, friends, a scholarship and the opportunity to improve my life.
Quoting oneself is an awfully narcissistic thing to do, but here goes: “Yet there is another reason I hesitate to call myself poor — the cultural baggage associated with the word: Poor people are lazy, stupid, immoral, shameless and incapable of making smart decisions. Poor people are losers; our country loves winners. We want poor people to trade their rags for riches. We want them to embody the American dream.”Most of all, we want to believe that poor people are shiftless and depraved and always to blame for their poverty. Otherwise, we’d have to face the possibility that someday we, too, could wind up on the business end of the bread line.”
That last, I think, is what’s behind some of the mean-spirited comments that people make on the various blogs. Underneath all the bluster is the nagging realization that many people are one or two paychecks away from the streets. It could all change in an instant. So they have to convince themselves that there’s something wrong with “those” people who end up broke/poor — and that such a thing could never happen to THEM.

4 A Poor Grad Student February 22, 2009 at 9:13 pm

It’s funny that you chose broke…I chose poor. Maybe people will feel sorry for a poor grad student…but necessarily a broke grad student. When I think of broke…I think it’s that person’s fault that they have no money. But when you’re poor it’s just the way it is.

5 Arbiter (Only God Can Judge Me) January 3, 2010 at 7:13 pm

@A Poor Grad Student

I c your POV…but being broke is not necessarily a person’s fault…though it CAN be….

But poor –> More permanent state of poverty
broke –> temporary state of poverty

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