Conceptual Meaning: Definition and Examples

Words carry many different types of meaning

Dictionary definition

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In semantics, conceptual meaning is the literal or core sense of a word. There is nothing read into the term, no subtext; it's just the straightforward, literal, dictionary definition of the word. The term is also called denotation or cognitive meaning. Contrast the word with connotation, affective meaning, and figurative meaning, which go beyond the dictionary to add subtext to a word when it's used.

In writing and conversation, it's good to know the difference between the literal, conceptual meaning of a word and all the connotations it has before you use it, to dispel misunderstandings or any offense before you accidentally put it out there—especially if a word is loaded with negatives or stereotypes about a group of people.

"To understand a word fully," noted authors Ruth Gairns and Stuart Redman, "a student must know not only what it refers to, but also where the boundaries are that separate it from words of related meaning."

7 Types of Meaning

The potential layers of meaning that a word has, besides its straight dictionary definition, makes word choice in your writing so important. It's especially important to know when those layers have historically racist or sexist undertones to them. Layers also have ramifications for those learning a language and being able to choose between similar words and use the correct one in the proper situation. 

The conceptual meaning of a word, in the field of linguistics, is just one of seven types of meaning that a word can have.

Affective meaning: what meaning is associated with it in the real world for the speaker or writer rather than just its dictionary meanings; subjective. A CEO and a nun talking about charity could mean two different things.  

Collocative meaning: words that are regularly found together. For example, take pretty and handsome. These words are more often associated with one gender or the other. If you hear someone behind you say, "Don't you look handsome," and you look to see one person talking to a girl and one talking to a boy, your knowledge of how handsome is used collocatively helps you figure out that the person you overheard is talking to the boy.

Conceptual meaning: the dictionary definition of the word; the descriptive definition of it. A cougar in the dictionary is a big cat. In contexts about people and not concerning wildlife, the term has other meanings. 

Connotative meaning: subtext and layers brought into the context by the use of a particular word; subjective. A word's connotations can be negative or positive, depending on the audience. The label of being a liberal or a conservative, for example, can be good or bad, depending on the person's intentions in using it and the person hearing or reading it. 

Connotative meanings can change over time or mean different things among different societies.

Reflective or reflected meaning: multiple conceptual meanings. For example, the literal, dictionary definition of the word gay is "happy" or "bright" (colors), though in society's use today it has a much different meaning.

Social meaning: the meaning given to words based on the social context that they're used in. For example, someone from the South would use y'all more often than someone from a different region of the country. People from different regions call a carbonated soft drink different things, too, from pop to soda to Coke (whether or not that is its literal brand name).

Language can have a formal or informal register too that relays social meaning, or in some contexts, usage can show social class or a lack of education, such as if someone uses a double negative (don't have none), incorrect verb forms (have went), or the word ain't.

Thematic meaning: how the speaker portrays the message through word choice, the order of words used, and emphasis. Notice the subtle difference in emphasis between these sentences:

  • My studies are important to me.
  • What's important to me are my studies.

A writer or speaker can imbue emphasis by how he or she ends a sentence or paragraph.

Context vs. Conceptual Meaning 

Understanding a word used in context is also important. The passage where the word is used will help you choose between possible different conceptual meanings to figure out the intended message of the writer or speaker. For instance, a crane could be a bird or a piece of machinery. Context will tell the reader which meaning is intended. Or, whether the word read is intended to be in present or past tense will be clear in context. 

Listen to a person's tone of voice and body language, when present in spoken language. Someone could say "That's great" in many different ways. In writing, look up the background of allusions to get added layers of meaning that come along with the word choice.

Further, look at how language is used in satire, sarcasm, figurative language, or humor. Each one of those areas has terms used in a way that differs from their dictionary definition—in the case of humor and sarcasm, a word could very well mean its opposite. Consider the catchphrase of Dana Carvey's the Church Lady on "Saturday Night Live," said in a mocking tone: "Isn't that special?" It doesn't mean something's special in a good way.

Beware of literalism. Not every word used in speaking or writing is meant to be taken to say solely its conceptual meaning. Think of that old saying, "If someone told you to go jump off a bridge, would you do it?" Obviously, the person who told you that didn't mean for you to actually go jump off a bridge.

Sources

  • Ruth Gairns and Stuart Redman. "Working With Words: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Vocabulary." Cambridge University Press, 1986.