Define Connotations

dictionary definition of a wordWhat is connotation?  Recently I was giving a presentation, and I talked about a word’s connotation.  “Traditionally, for many, doubt has a negative connotation.”  Someone interrupted me mid-sentence, in front of everyone, “uh, I think you mean denotation.”  Um, excuse me, but I am a lawyer, and I was an English major before that, and an avid reader and word lover/enthusiast always, and I believe I know the difference between connotation and denotation better than you do, thank you very much.  Also, even if you were right (which you’re not), it’s extremely rude to interrupt someone and try to make them look stupid in front of a group.  And it’s especially obnoxious if you’re also wrong.  But then, of course, I went straight home and looked up both denotation and connotation in the dictionary, and this is what I discovered:

According to the Merriam definition (Merriam being short for Merriam Webster’s), “denotation” means:

  1. :  an act or process of denoting

  2. :  meaning; especially :  a direct specific meaning as distinct from an implied or associated idea

  3. a :  a denoting term :  name b :  sign, indication <visible denotations of divine wrath>

  4. :  the totality of things to which a term is applicable especially in logic — compare connotation

By contrast, the “connotation” definition provided:

  1. a :  the suggesting of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it explicitly names or describes b :  something suggested by a word or thing :  implication <the connotations of comfort that surrounded that old chair>

  2. the signification of something <that abuse of logic which consists in moving counters about as if they were known entities with a fixed connotation — W. R. Inge>

  3. an essential property or group of properties of a thing named by a term in logic — compare denotation

So who was right?  Well, there may be a subjective component.  As simply as I can get myself to understand it, denotation denotes direct meaning, while connotation has more to do with associated meaning.  For me, philosophically, doubt does not have a negative denotation.  In fact, I quite enjoy doubt, as understanding and meaning and feeling come from doubt.  But traditionally, many people have more negative associations with the sensation or process of doubt.  Therefore doubt has negative connotations, but not necessarily negative denotations.

But was I wrong?  What tipped me off was that we don’t usually talk about denotations of words, only connotations of words.  A denotation is a word’s meaning, essentially the definition of a word, so talking about a word meaning what it means seems kind of redundant.  Connotation, consisting of something other than meaning, seems much more interesting.  Which makes it much more worth considering to me.

Anyone else have a fun example of connotation?  Thoughts on who was right?  Is connotation something other than the dictionary definition of a word?  Hit me up and let me know, dunce academy.

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