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Connotation and Denotation

The relationship between words and meanings is extremely complicated and belongs to the field of semantics. What you need to remember is that most words do not have single, simple meanings. Traditionally, grammarians have classified the meanings of words as follows:

a literal meaning of the word
an association (emotional or otherwise) that the word evokes

For example, both woman and chick have the denotation adult female in North American society, but chick has a somewhat negative connotation, while woman is neutral.

Consider the following:

There are over 2,000 vagrants in the city.
There are over 2,000 people with no fixed address in the city.
There are over 2,000 homeless in the city.

All three of these expressions refer to exactly the same people, but they invoke different associations in the reader’s mind: a vagrant may be viewed as a public nuisance, while a homeless person may be seen as someone worthy of receiving aid. Presumably, someone writing an editorial in support of a new shelter would use the positive form, while someone writing an editorial in support of anti-loitering laws would opt for the negative form.

In this case, the dry legal expression with no fixed address quite deliberately avoids most of the positive or negative associations of the other two terms. A legal specialist will try to avoid connotative language altogether when writing legislation, often resorting to Latin or French terms that are not a part of ordinary spoken English and, thus, relatively free of strong emotional associations.

Many of the most obvious changes in the English language over the past few decades have had to do with the connotations of words that refer to groups of people. Since the 1950s, words like Negro and crippled have acquired strong negative connotations and have been replaced either by words with neutral connotations (e.g. black, disabled) or by expressions with deliberately positive connotations (e.g. African-Canadian, person with a disability).

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