Grammar and Usage: denote vs. connote

The word “denote” refers to what a word literally means. For example, the word “beach” denotes an area next to a large body of water, no more and no less.  A beach can be a cold, rocky, and windswept place. Often, however, the word “beach” conjures up notions of warm sun, sand, pleasure, and relaxation.

These latter things are what the word “beach” connotes to most of us in Western society.  Again, the denotation of a word is what it means literally. The connotation of a word refers to the additional images, feelings, or associations we attach to it.

Why So Negative?

We often hear of words having “negative connotations.”  Some words people describe as having negative connotations actually have a denotative meaning that most people consider unpleasant.  For example, the word “miserly” literally means acting like a greedy, ungenerous person in regard to money. The word’s denotative meaning itself is negative, at least in most people’s minds.  

Still, when people say “miserly” has a negative connotation, they mean the word has some kind of negative association attached to it, especially when compared with other words that have similar meanings.  “Miserly” is sometimes said to have a negative connotation when compared with “frugal,” which is said to have a more neutral or positive connotation.

Usage Changes Over Time

As time goes by and the thinking of society changes, some words that once had neither negative nor positive connotations can earn one or the other connotation. For example, the word “asylum” was a neutral, even positive, term for a place of residence and treatment for people with mental illness in the nineteenth century.  But as these residences eventually came to be associated in the public mind with abuse and neglect, as well as with some residents’ disturbing behavior, the word “asylum” took on a negative, even frightening, connotation.  This change in mindset led to the elimination of the use of the term to describe such institutions. Other institutions that had been called asylums, such as shelters for orphans or the very poor, also ceased to be called asylums.

Connotation, as we can see from the above example, is one of the various forces that brings about change in language.  Words can become more popular and come into greater use because of their connotation. However, they can also fall into disuse because of their connotation.

In the Dictionary

Dictionary definitions present denotative rather than connotative meaning as a rule.  When dictionaries present connotative meanings, they do it in usage notes or in parenthetical remarks within definitions.  For example, the word “spinster,” whose denotative meaning is simply “a woman who has never married or is unlikely to marry,” has unflattering connotations in modern English.  A sensitive person would probably not use the word “spinster” to describe an unmarried aunt that he or she liked and respected.

Dictionaries often make a note about the connotation of words by noting the term is often used “disparagingly” or that it is a “derogatory” or “offensive” term.  It’s clear that a word’s connotation can often be as important as its denotation.

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