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What Is Connotation?

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  • Written By: Maggie Worth
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A denotation is the precise and exact definition of a word. A connotation is the secondary or implied meaning of a word, based of the common feeling associated with the word. Connotations can vary based on geography and culture, and may change over time. The word "connotation" stems from Medieval Latin and came into common use in England in the mid 1500s.

Connotation describes the images and feelings called up by a particular word, rather than its strict definition. For example, the adjectives "mad" and "furious" both denote that someone is angry. "Furious," however, evokes an image of a much stronger, more intense feeling. This is connotation.

Another example would be to compare the words "work" and "toil." Both denote exerting oneself. To say that a man works, however, could mean that he expends great effort or simply that he has a job. To say that a man toils conjures up an impression of someone who labors very hard, probably in a physical job, and possibly in a very difficult situation.

Understanding both the denotation and connotation of words can help people convey their meanings more clearly. Writers often use connotation to great effect in books, songs and plays. For example, rather than saying that a night was dark, a writer who wants to create a feeling of foreboding might instead say that the night was pitch black.

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Word choice is also important in marketing and advertising. For example, a product advertised as "new," will garner a different response than one advertised as "unfamiliar," even though both words have very similar denotations. "New," however, connotes "fresh" and "exciting" whereas "unfamiliar" connotes "strange" and "uncomfortable."

Other professions also find connotation important. Speechwriters, for instance, can create very different impressions based on the words they choose. So can reporters, public relations professionals, politicians, attorneys and negotiators.

Knowing what a particular word connotes can also help prevent misunderstandings. While a word might appear to have a benign definition, its emotional meaning might easily be inflammatory or insulting. This can be a particular problem for nonnative speakers of a language.

A nonnative English speaker, for example, might describe someone's skin as "pasty," meaning that the person has very fair or pale skin. In English, however, the word "pasty," when applied to skin tone, connotes a complexion that is very white, unattractive, and quite possibly unhealthy. The speaker might easily offend the individual in question without meaning to, simply because he is unfamiliar with the connotation of the word "pasty."

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allenJo
Post 8

@David09 - I think that there are worse connotative sins than the ones that you mentioned.

I heard of a teacher who removed the word “gay” from a Christmas carol because kids were giggling. It was the famous line that read, “don we now our gay apparel.”

Now the fact is, the word “gay” has certainly undergone some changes in meaning in the past 50 years, but it still can mean “happy.” However, what it means and what it connotes (today) are two different things. I think this is just an example of political correctness gone amok.

David09
Post 7

Advertising is rich with examples of words that have connotative meaning. As an English major, however, I find myself somewhat repulsed by some of these examples.

After all, what exactly is meant by the term “new and improved”? If a product is new, is it really improved? If it’s improved, is it new?

Marketers inherently know that this phraseology makes no real literal sense, but they are playing for your emotions. They are trying to push all the buttons at once.

Things that are new evoke one sensation and things that are improved evoke another.

Both of these sentiments are positive, and immediately we find ourselves reaching for our wallets.

I think that the marketers should be ashamed of themselves for this and other egregious examples of mangling the English language, but in advertising, if it helps the bottom line, that’s all that matters.

seag47
Post 6

@lighth0se33 – I had a similar mishap involving connotations, but mine was the reverse of yours. My sister had been begging me to set her up with my attractive male friend, and I told her that he was a bit “eccentric.” She took this to mean interesting and exotic, so that made her plead even more.

I told her not to say I didn't warn her, but she just thought I was too normal to appreciate eccentricity. Within a month, she was trying to get away from him. She told me that a more appropriate term to describe him would be “disturbed.”

She ended up having to get a restraining order against him. I guess I should have considered the fact that “eccentric” is not generally a negative connotation and used a stronger word.

wavy58
Post 5

Good use of connotations can make a piece of prose beautiful. I always prefer it when writers find ways to use words or phrases that differ from the normal cliches.

I like it when they refer to the night as “ebony” rather than “black.” It improves the meaning so much when they use more descriptive, stronger terms.

One writer referred to an extremely sunny day as “electric,” rather than simply “bright.” Another one referred to a river as “boiling” rather than “raging,” and this made it so much more appealing to me. I could actually see a sputtering, churning river full of bubbles in my mind, whereas “raging” would have made me think more of the water as dark and mad, which isn't what the author meant at all.

shell4life
Post 4

The connotation of a word can vary, depending on the context in which it is used. When you use a word that normally means one thing, but you are clearly being sarcastic with it, then it takes on a whole new meaning.

For example, I had a bad habit of correcting my friends' grammar. Most of them put up with me, but one time, I offended my best friend. She angrily stated, “Well, aren't you observant?”

Normally, that would have been a compliment, because I do pride myself on noticing small details. However, she spat out the words and gave me a slicing look, so I knew I had overstepped my bounds. In this case, “observant” meant “annoying.”

lighth0se33
Post 3

This article reminds me of the time I tried to set my brother up with one of my coworkers. I had told him that she was “fancy,” which to me meant well-dressed and groomed. He thought I meant that she was high-maintenance and snobby, so for the longest time, he refused to meet her.

He happened to come to my workplace one day to bring me an important document, and she was there. He took one look at her and was smitten.

When I got home that night, he told me that a better word to describe her would have been “glamorous.” They had talked for a minute or two at work, and he could see that she was sweet and not snobby at all. We both agreed that she had an elegant appearance, but he scolded me for referring to her as “fancy.”

SailorJerry
Post 2

I remember studying connotation and denotation with the poem "Richard Corey" in high school. (If you haven't read it, look it up - it's widely available online and quite a fascinating poem.)

Richard Corey is meant to be elegant and enviable, so he is not described as being well-dressed from "head to toe" like a regular person, but from "sole to crown." Now, crown just means the top of your head, but it gives that hint of royalty. And "sole" is both more elegant than "toe" - Richard Corey have toes? Surely not - and reminds one of "soul."

And the poor peons admiring Richard Corey are on the "pavement," which suggests blacktop rather than the more refined "sidewalk." Lots of ways to talk about word choice/diction in that poem!

robbie21
Post 1

All these rich examples of connotation are one of the things that makes the English language so unique. Because of its history, incorporating words from Latin, Anglo-Saxon, French conquerors, and more, English seems to have more words than most other world languages to which it could be compared.

Words that come from French, Greek, or Latin often seem more "elegant" or refined that Anglo-Saxon words (particularly clear if you think about bathroom words). So while two very similar words can have different connotations - think of the pleasing "childlike" or the insult "childish" - two very different words that mean the same thing can have even more different connotations. Think of "rich," which sounds rather vulgar, versus the more elegant "wealthy."

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