Denotation and connotation

Words have both denotative and connotative meaning.

  • The denotative meaning of a word is its literal meaning or dictionary definition.
  • Connotative meaning relates to the additional emotional weight or “baggage” that a word carries.

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<h2><span style="color: #000000;">The many layers of meaning</span></h2>
<p><span style="color: #000000;">Let’s look at a range of examples to place things in context. </span></p>
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<li><span style="color: #000000;">Think of the word <span style="color: #666699;"><em>heart.</em></span> For its denotative meaning, you will probably picture a heart, the organ that pumps blood around the body. Its connotative meaning, however, is associated with concepts such as <span style="color: #666699;"><em>bravery, romance, love</em> </span>and <em><span style="color: #666699;">red roses</span>.</em></span></li>
<li><span style="color: #000000;">Now let’s consider the words, <span style="color: #666699;"><em>home</em></span> and <span style="color: #666699;"><em>house.</em></span> Their denotative meanings are the same. They both describe a place where individuals and/or families live. But, their connotative meanings are different. <span style="color: #666699;"><em>Home,</em></span> on the one hand, has positive connotations of <em><span style="color: #666699;">togetherness, comfort</span></em> and <em><span style="color: #666699;">happiness. House,</span></em> on the other hand, has more neutral connotations. It simply relates to a structure in which people live, which lacks the warmth of <span style="color: #666699;"><em>home.</em></span></span></li>
<li><span style="color: #000000;">Take, as another example, the words <span style="color: #666699;"><em>cheap</em></span> and <span style="color: #666699;"><em>inexpensive.</em></span> They are a <strong><span style="color: #666699;">synonyms (</span></strong>words that have almost the same meanings). They both describe something that does not cost a lot. This is their denotative meaning. However, the connotations of <span style="color: #666699;"><em>cheap</em></span> are negative. For instance, <span style="color: #666699;"><em>cheap</em></span> might call to mind products or services that are <em><span style="color: #666699;">cheap</span> <span style="color: #666699;">and nasty</span></em>, or <span style="color: #666699;"><em>of poor quality</em></span>. The connotations of <span style="color: #666699;"><em>inexpensive</em></span> are more positive. If you purchase something that is <em><span style="color: #666699;">inexpensive,</span> </em>you would most likely be praised for obtaining a good deal, and for not being conned into paying too much for it.</span></li>
</ul>
<h3><span style="color: #000000;">Moving beyond dictionary definitions</span></h3>
<blockquote><p><span style="color: #000000;">There is much more to understanding the meaning of a word than simply looking it up in a dictionary. </span></p></blockquote>
<p><span style="color: #000000;">Word meaning is layered. If you are not aware of the additional emotional associations that some words carry, you can cause offense.<br />
</span></p>
<h3><span style="color: #000000;">Keeping abreast of meaning changes</span></h3>
<p><span style="color: #000000;">Word meanings are in constant flux and we owe it to ourselves to keep abreast of these changes. </span></p>
<p><span style="color: #000000;">Consider, for example, the term <em>third world. </em>It is a word that carries definite shades of meaning. When coined in the 1940s,  it was merely used to describe a country’s ideological allegiances. At the time, <em>third world</em> countries were those that were not aligned to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and capitalism, while <em>first world</em> countries were. <em>Second world</em> countries fell somewhere in between.</span></p>
<p><span style="color: #000000;">Over time, the meanings of these terms have changed. Because of the prevailing view that <em>third world countries</em> are <em>corrupt, struggling</em> and <em>poor,</em> and that <em>first world</em> countries are <em>rich</em> and <em>successful,</em> people have tended to associate <em>third world</em> with the notions of <em>poverty, degradation,</em> <em>a lack of prospects</em>, and so on. Similarly, the meaning of <em>first world</em> changed from being a mere description to something that reflected all things good: <em>wealth, happiness, success</em> and <em>good governance.</em></span></p>
<div><span style="color: #000000;">In an attempt to overcome the harsh associations of <em>third world</em>, some organisations, most notably the World Trade Organization (WHO), the United Nations (UN) and leading international media organisations, promoted the use of the aspirational term <em>developing country, </em>instead of <em>third world country</em> and <em>developed country</em> instead of  <em>first world country.<br />
</em></span></div>
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<h3><span style="color: #000000;">Mastering connotation</span></h3>
</div>
<blockquote>
<div><span style="color: #000000;">Native speakers of English often have an unconscious grasp of connotation, while non-mother tongue speakers tend to have more difficulty with it. But mastering connotation is part and parcel of learning a language.<br />
</span></div>
</blockquote>
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<h3></h3>
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<h3>   A word challenge</h3>
<h4>   Ranking word meaning</h4>
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<ul style="list-style-type: circle;">
<li>Here’s a little challenge for you. Imagine that you are placing words on a meaning continuum. The words on the left are more negative. Those in the middle are more neutral and those on the right are positive. How would you rank these words?</li>
</ul>
<ol>
<li><strong><em>Weight:</em></strong> fat, portly, chunky, obese, plump, well-built</li>
<li><strong><em>Disability</em>:</strong> disadvantaged, crippled, handicapped, stupid, disabled, mentally/physically challenged, retarded</li>
<li><strong><em>Assertiveness</em>:</strong> confident, aggressive, assertive, strong-willed, domineering, dynamic, self-assured, pushy, forceful</li>
</ol>
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<li style="list-style-type: none;">
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<li data-tadv-p="keep">There are no right and wrong answers.  But there are definitely situations in which some words work, and others don’t.</li>
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</li>
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<li style="list-style-type: none;">
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<li data-tadv-p="keep">If you use words in the wrong setting, you will cause offense.</li>
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<li style="list-style-type: none;">
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<li data-tadv-p="keep">It is less offensive to refer to someone as being <em>portly</em> than it is to call them <em>fat.</em></li>
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</li>
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<ul>
<li data-tadv-p="keep">Similarly, it is more appropriate to refer to someone with <em>physical or mental challenges</em> as being <em>disabled,</em> rather than being <em>crippled</em> or <em>retarded.</em></li>
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<blockquote><p><span style="color: #000000;">Be forewarned. If you describe someone in an insensitive or inappropriate way, it reflects more severely on you, than it does on the person you are describing. So be prepared for the wrath that will come your way.</span></p></blockquote>
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