What Is Reflected Meaning?

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In semantics, reflected meaning is a phenomenon whereby a single word or phrase is associated with more than one sense or meaning. It is also known as coloring and contagion

The term reflected meaning was coined by linguist Geoffrey Leech, who defined it as "the meaning which arises in cases of multiple conceptual meaning when one sense of a word forms part of our response to another sense. . . . One sense of a word seems to 'rub off' on another sense" (Semantics: The Study of Meaning, 1974). When comedians use reflected meaning in their jokes it's an example of wordplay. The joke is usually funny because it uses a word that is technically correct for the situation but that will elicit a different often opposite image in the mind of the listener. 

Examples and Observations

"In the case of reflected meaning, more than one meaning surfaces at the same time, so there is a kind of ambiguity. It is as if one or more unintended meanings were inevitably thrown back rather like light or sound reflected on a surface. For instance, if I use the medical expression chronic bronchitis, it is difficult for the more colloquial emotive meaning of chronic, 'bad,' not to intrude as well. . . . Sometimes, such coincidental, 'unwanted' meanings cause us to change a lexical item for another. Thus, if I think that dear in my dear old car may be misinterpreted as meaning 'expensive,' I can substitute 'lovely' and eliminate the potential ambiguity. . . .
"Reflected meaning may be used deliberately. Newspaper headlines exploit it all the time:
Naturally the success of such word play will depend on the standard of education, linguistic experience or mental agility of the readership."

From Introductory Semantics and Pragmatics for Spanish Learners of English by Brian Mott


"Perhaps a more everyday example [of reflected meaning] is 'intercourse,' which by reason of its frequent collocation with 'sexual' tends now to be avoided in other contexts."

From Translation, Linguistics, Culture: A French-English Handbook by Nigel Armstrong  

Reflected Meanings of Product Names

"[S]uggestive [ trademarks] are marks that call to mind--or suggest--an association related to the product they name. They imply strength or softness or freshness or flavor, depending on the product; they are subtle marks, created by marketers and ad people who are very skilled at making artful associations. Think of TORO lawn mowers, DOWNY fabric softener, IRISH SPRING deodorant soap, and ZESTA saltine crackers. None of these marks is obvious, but we perceive nonetheless the strength of TORO lawn mowers, the softness DOWNY fabric softener imparts to laundry, the fresh scent of IRISH SPRING soap, and the zesty taste of ZESTA saltines."

From The Trademark Guide by Lee Wilson

The Lighter Side of Reflected Meaning

"A [baseball] player with an unfortunate name was pitcher Bob Blewett. He pitched five games for New York during the 1902 season. Blewett lost both of his decisions and gave up 39 hits in only 28 innings."

From Baseball's Most Wanted II by Floyd Conner

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Reflected Meaning?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/reflected-meaning-semantics-1691904. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 25). What Is Reflected Meaning? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/reflected-meaning-semantics-1691904 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Reflected Meaning?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/reflected-meaning-semantics-1691904 (accessed April 2, 2023).