Definition and Examples of Associative Meaning

A headshot of a pink pig.

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In semantics, associative meaning refers to the particular qualities or characteristics beyond the denotative meaning that people commonly think of (correctly or incorrectly) in relation to a word or phrase. Also known as expressive meaning and stylistic meaning.

In Semantics: The Study of Meaning (1974), British linguist Geoffrey Leech introduced the term associative meaning to refer to the various types of meaning that are distinct from denotation (or conceptual meaning): connotative, thematic, social, effective, reflective, and collocative.

Cultural and Personal Associations

"A word can sweep by your ear and by its very sound suggest hidden meanings, preconscious association. Listen to these words: blood, tranquil, democracy. You know what they mean literally but you have associations with those words that are cultural, as well as your own personal associations."
(Rita Mae Brown, Starting From Scratch. Bantam, 1988)

"[W]hen some people hear the word 'pig' they think of a particularly dirty and unhygienic animal. These associations are largely mistaken, at least in comparison with most other farm animals (although their association with various cultural traditions and related emotional responses are real enough), so we would probably not include these properties in the connotations of the word. But the associative meaning of a word often has very powerful communicative and argumentative consequences, so it is important to mention this aspect of meaning."
(Jerome E. Bickenbach and Jacqueline M. Davies, Good Reasons for Better Arguments: An Introduction to the Skills and Values of Critical Thinking. Broadview Press, 1998)

Unconscious Association

"A good example of a common noun with an almost universal associative meaning is 'nurse.' Most people automatically associate 'nurse' with 'woman.' This unconscious association is so widespread that the term 'male nurse' has had to be coined to counteract its effect."
(Sándor Hervey and Ian Higgins, Thinking French Translation: A Course in Translation Method, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2002)

Conceptual Meaning and Associative Meaning

"We can ... make a broad distinction between conceptual meaning and associative meaning. Conceptual meaning covers those basic, essential components of meaning that are conveyed by the literal use of a word. It is the type of meaning that dictionaries are designed to describe. Some of the basic components of a word like "needle" in English might include 'thin, sharp, steel instrument.' These components would be part of the conceptual meaning of "needle." However, different people might have different associations or connotations attached to a word like "needle." They might associate it with 'pain,' or 'illness,' or 'blood,' or 'drugs,' or 'thread,' or 'knitting,' or 'hard to find' (especially in a haystack), and these associations may differ from one person to the next. These types of associations are not treated as part of the word's conceptual meaning.
[P]oets, songwriters, novelists, literary critics, advertisers, and lovers may all be interested in how words can evoke certain aspects of associative meaning, but in linguistic semantics, we're more concerned with trying to analyze conceptual meaning."
(George Yule, The Study of Language, 4th ed. Cambridge University Press, 2010)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Associative Meaning." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Associative Meaning. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Associative Meaning." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).