Define connotations

What is connotation?  Everyone probably has a pretty good working understanding, but let’s look a little bit deeper, just for fun.

The New Oxford American Dictionary (“NOAD”) defines “connotation” as a noun, meaning “an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal meaning.”

In philosophy, connotation has a similar, but slightly different, significance, representing “the abstract meaning or intension of a term, which forms the principle determining which objects or concepts it applies to.”

Connotation is often contrasted with “denotation,” which, also according to our good friends at NOAD, means “the literal or primary meaning of a word, in contrast to the feelings or ideas that the word suggests.”

In philosophy, denotation means “the object or concept to which a term refers, or the set of objects of which a predicate is true.”

Still confusing?

Let’s try it this way.  A connotation is a commonly understood subjective cultural or emotional association that some word or phrase carries, in addition to the word’s or phrase’s explicit or literal meaning, which is its denotation.  A connotation is frequently described as either positive or negative, with regards to its pleasing or displeasing emotional connection.

Some examples might be helpful.

In the NOAD, the definition provided “the word ‘discipline’ has unhappy connotations of punishment and repression.”  And it’s true.  The denotative meaning of discipline is not bad in and of itself, but there are probably very few people that would automatically assign it a positive connotation.

For another example, Wikipedia, under “connotation,” provides:

[a] stubborn person may be described as being either strong-willed or pig-headed; although these have the same literal meaning (stubborn), strong-willed connotes admiration for the level of someone’s will (a positive connotation), while pig-headed connotes frustration in dealing with someone (a negative connotation).

This led me to think of several other examples.  Here’s a timely one: consider the word “conservative.”  Is your knee-jerk reaction to that word a positive or negative one?  What is the setting?  Politics?  Investing?  Religion?  Gambling?  Eating?  Sports?

How about “imaginative”?  Good for an artist (with postive connotations of “creative,” “passionate,” “unique,” “insightful”); but maybe less desirable in someone with a more serious/demanding profession, say for the pure sake of example, an attorney (with negative connotations “unfocused,” “unconventional,” “spacy,” “distracted,” or even “unethical”).  How about an imaginative child?  Could go either way depending on your connotation definition.

Can anyone think of any interesting others?  What creates or causes an emotional or cultural association with a word that deviates from its literal meaning?  What, other than meaning, controls how we feel about a word?  What impact, if any, does the definition of a word have on its connotation?

Does the meaning of connotation itself depend on its own connotation?


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