Where Do Connotations Come From?

01Jul08

Denotation = the literal definition of a word. Cool = slightly cold in temperature.
Connotation = the common or cultural meaning of a word, or the feelings that come along with the word. Cool = hip, or “agreed.”

What causes the connotation of a word to differ from the denotation? In your opinion?

Connotation is a really imprtant idea! People don’t realize this idea, and that is bad, a shame, and leads to TONS of miscommunication.

Not only do words have connotations, but situations, idioms, colors, brands have connotations (not sure if I’m using the word properly, but you get the idea).

“Cool” is actually a bad example for what I’m talking about. “The Gospel,” has a bad connotation to the American culture – same with “Christian,” “church,” “prayer in schools,” “pro life.” Or here’s another example:

To say something is “okay,” that usually means it’s bad, or unsatisfactory. Although saying it’s “okay” should literally mean that it’s acceptable, it usually means that it’s not.

Maybe a more interesting phrase would be saying “I’m Better Than You at cooking”. (this is on the fly, so bear with). The phrase “better than you” has bad connotations for our culture. Although we totally agree with the idea that people are better than me at cooking, or whatever, and we’re fine with that, for someone to say the explicit phrase “I’m better than you …” – it sounds arrogant, and is very off putting – to our cultural ears. Although they’re simply stating a fact, it is rude to say it like that. So you rephrase, “I like cooking.”

Unfortunately, I don’t know what my point is. I think one possible point is this: be careful how you say what you’re saying (I suck at this). I’ve seen how many times someone has said something that’s technically right, but their word choice made it sound wrong/bad – or their tone, or whatever.

Well, a semi-interesting question might be: Where do connotations come from? How are connotations created and attached to a word?

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6 Responses to “Where Do Connotations Come From?”

  1. First, I would recommend you pick up Francis Schaeffer’s book “A Christian Worldview” He explore the connotative and denotive meaning of words and gives many examples.

    Second, my own summary, based on Schaeffer’s writing is this. Denotive meaning can be equated to the substance of a word. It is the basic contextual meaning.

    Connotative meaning comes form our experience of a word. It reflects the feelings, emotions, and images a word creates.

    Ideally, the connotative should enhance the denotive meaning, but in most cases this does not happen.

    Politicians, for example, rely heavenly on connotative meaning when they make promises they do not intend to keep. Then when they fail to meet expectations, they will often revert to the denotive meaning to try and justify their actions, or inaction, to the voter.

    The term Fundamentalist is an example Schaeffer uses in his book.

    “Soon, however, the word fundamentalist came into use. As used at first, it had nothing problematic in its use either in definition or in connotation. I personally, however, preferred Machen’s term “Bible-believing Christian” because that was what the discussion was all about.

    As time passed, however, the term fundamentalist took on a connotation for many people which had no necessary relationship to its original meaning. It came to connote a form of pietism which shut Christian interest up to only a very limited view of spirituality. In this new connotation, many things having to do with the arts, culture, education, and social involvement were considered to be “unspiritual” and not a proper area of concern for the Christian. Spirituality had to do with a very narrow sphere of the Christian’s life, and all other things were considered to be suspect. Fundamentalism also, at times, became overly harsh and lacking in love, while properly saying that the liberal doctrine that was false to the Bible had to be met with confrontation.”

    Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer : A Christian Worldview. (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1996, c1982).

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