The Power of Connotations: Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

man with a pig's head
Consider Bertrand Russell's playful way of demonstrating that words convey attitudes ( connotations) as well as more straightforward meanings ( denotations): I am firm; you are obstinate; he is a pig-headed fool. (H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

Connotation refers to the emotional implications and associations that a word may carry, in contrast to its denotative (or literal) meanings. Verb: connote. Adjective: connotative. Also called intension or sense. The connotation of a word can be positive, negative, or neutral. It can also be either cultural or personal. Here's an example:

To most people the word cruise connotes--suggests--a delightful holiday; thus its cultural connotation is positive. If you get seasick, however, the word may connote only discomfort to you; your personal connotation is negative.
(Vocabulary by Doing, 2001)

Connotations in Academics

Linguists, grammarians, and academics have commented on connotations and explained their meanings as the following examples demonstrate.

Alan Partington

In his book Patterns and Meanings (1998), Alan Partington observes that connotation is a "problem area" for learners of a language: "[Because] it is an important mechanism for the expression of attitude, it is of paramount importance that learners be aware of it in order to grasp the illocutionary intent of messages."

David Crystal

"A group of synonyms cannot by definition be distinguished in terms of their denotation, but they usually display noticeable differences of connotation, as in the case of car, automobile, runabout, buggy, banger, bus, hot rod, jalopy, old crock, racer, and so on."
(The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2003)

R. B. Moore

"Since 'tribe' has assumed a connotation of primitiveness or backwardness, it is suggested that the use of 'nation' or 'people' replace the term whenever possible in referring to Native American peoples."
("Racism in the English Language," in The Production of Reality, ed. J. O'Brien, 2005)

Connotations in Popular Culture

Everyone from television cartoon characters to U.S. Supreme Court justices and noted economists as well as well-known authors and columnists have commented on and explained connotations.

William O. Douglas

"In the East the wilderness has no evil connotation; it is thought of as an expression of the unity and harmony of the universe."

Jessica Ryen Doyle

"Exercise addiction.
"It sounds like an oxymoron--exercise has a healthy connotation, while addiction sounds negative.
"But experts are seeing some people abuse a healthy lifestyle--and for one Los Angeles woman, the addiction lasted nearly 20 years."
("Woman Battles Exercise Addiction for Nearly 20 Years." Fox News.com, October 17, 2012)

Ian Mendes

"In the real world, procrastination has a negative connotation.
"People who leave things to the last minute are often characterized as lazy, unprepared and inefficient.
"In professional sports, though, procrastination isn’t a label to be ashamed about. In fact, putting things off until the last possible moment might be the sign of a true champion."
("Procrastinate Like a Champion." Ottawa Citizen, October 15, 2012)

Marketwatch

"Debt is a four letter word. For many people it has the same connotation as many other four letter words. However, not all debt is bad. . . . In general terms good debt is defined as debt that allows someone to invest in the future such as business loans, student loans, mortgages and real estate loans."
("How to Know When Debt Is a Four Letter Word." October 17, 2012)

William Safire

"'Stimulus is Washington talk,' said Rahm Emanuel, the coming White House chief of staff with a sandpapered-fingertip sensitivity to the familiar connotation of words. 'Economic recovery is how the American people think of it.'"
("Recovery." The New York Times, Dec. 12, 2008)

Duff Wilson

"Altria said it had used terms like 'light' as well as packaging colors to connote different tastes, not safety. But study after study--including ones by the industry disclosed in tobacco lawsuits--has shown consumers believe the terms and colors connote a safer product."
("Coded to Obey Law, Lights Become Marlboro Gold." The New York Times, Feb. 18, 2010)

The Simpsons

- Mr. Powers: Jones. I don't like that name. It's going to handicap you, young man. Now wait a minute. I've got some sort of a name here. Yes. Haverstock. Huntley Haverstock. Sounds a little more important, don't you think, Mr. Fisher?
Mr. Fisher: Oh, yes, yes. Very dashing.
Mr. Powers: . . . Well, speak up young man. You don't mind being Huntley Haverstock, do you?
Johnny Jones: A rose by any name, sir.
(Harry Davenport, George Sanders, and Joel McCrea in Foreign Correspondent, 1940)
- "What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
(Juliet in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)
- Lisa: "A rose by any other name smells as sweet."
Bart: Not if you call them "Stench Blossoms."

Chicago Tribune

In an effort to boost sales going into the grilling season and make shopping at the meat counter a bit easier, the pork and beef industries are retooling more than 350 names of meat cuts to give them more sizzle and consumer appeal. . . .
"[By summer,] the 'pork chop' will be gone. Instead, grocery retailers could be stocking stacks of 'porterhouse chops,' 'ribeye chops' and 'New York chops.' The pork butt -- which actually comes from shoulder meat--will be called a Boston roast."
("New Meat Names Mean Bye Bye, Pork Chop; Hello, Ribeye." April 10, 2013)

John Russell

"The name reservation has a negative connotation among Native Americans--an intern camp of sorts."

Milton Friedman

"[For many], socialism implies egalitarianism and that people are living for society, while capitalism has been given the connotation of materialism, 'greedy,' 'selfish,' 'self-serving,' and so on."

Freeman Hall

"'Why is it a handbag instead of a purse?'
"The General simultaneously rolled her eyes and released a tired sigh. 'A purse is a cheap, plastic discount store thing. A handbag is what contemporary, fashion-conscious women carry. And that's what we sell. Expensive designer handbags. An assortment of the latest trends and must-have famous names. They are handbags and you need to refer to them that way. You can say bag for short, but never, ever, ever say the word purse It's an insult to the exclusive designers we carry. Got it?'
"'Got it.'
"But I didn't really get it. The whole thing sounded kind of snooty and stupid."
(Retail Hell: How I Sold My Soul to the Store. Adams Media, 2009)

Joseph N. Welch as Judge Weaver

"There's a certain light connotation attached to the word 'panties.' Can we find another name for them?"
(Anatomy of a Murder, 1959)

Connotation in Poetry

Poetry also provides a rich canvas for the use of connotations as the two following works by poets—one modern, and one from years past—show.

E.A. Robinson

In the following poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson, distinguish between the denotative and connotative meanings of the words in italics.Richard Cory (1897)
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich--yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Henry David Thoreau

In the following poem we have italicized a number of key words whose connotative meaning directs our response to the images. Although the poem is mostly images--the overt commentary is confined to the first two lines--the poet's attitude is anything but neutral.Pray to What Earth Does This Sweet Cold Belong
by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Pray to what earth does this sweet cold belong,
Which asks no duties and no conscience?
The moon goes up by leaps, her cheerful path
In some far summer stratum of the sky,
While stars with their cold shine bedot her way.
The fields gleam mildly back upon the sky,
And far and near upon the leafless shrubs
The snow dust still emits a silver light.
Under the hedge, where drift banks are their screen,
The titmice now pursue their downy dreams,
As often in the sweltering summer nights
The bee doth drop asleep in the flower cup,
When evening overtakes him with his load.
By the brooksides, in the still, genial night,
The more adventurous wanderer may hear
The crystals shoot and form, and winter slow
Increase his rule by gentlest summer means.
(David Bergman and Daniel Mark Epstein, The Heath Guide to Literature. D.C. Heath, 1984)

Other Details About Connotations

Etymology: From the Latin, "mark along with"

Pronunciation: kon-no-TAY-shun

Also known as: affective meaning, intensional meaning

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Nordquist, Richard. "The Power of Connotations: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, May. 30, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-connotation-words-1689912. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, May 30). The Power of Connotations: Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-connotation-words-1689912 Nordquist, Richard. "The Power of Connotations: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-connotation-words-1689912 (accessed October 22, 2021).