I. What is Connotation?
A connotation is a feeling or idea that a word has, in addition to its literal or main meaning (the denotation). Often, a series of words can have the same basic definitions, but completely different connotations—these are the emotions or meanings implied by a word, phrase, or thing.
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For example, “This clothing is affordable!” versus “This clothing is cheap!” Here, “affordable” sounds much better than “cheap,” because the word cheap also implies low quality.
II. Examples of Connotation
Connotation is an additional meaning for a word or phrase; thus, the examples are endless. As mentioned, many words will share the same literal meaning, but may connote different feelings or ideas. Below are several examples:
Stench, smell, aroma, scent, odorStrong, tough, sturdy, hardProud, confident, arrogant, egotisticalChildish, childlike, young, youthfulRich, loaded, privileged, wealthy, affluentBroke, poor, impoverishedFrugal, economical, stingy, cheapTempting, attractive, interestingLiar, storyteller, fibberIndependent, unfriendly, private, standoffish
Think of these words used in the similar conversations. For example, imagine the difference between describing someone as a “strong woman” or a “sturdy woman”: because of these words’ connotations, the first implies that she is strong emotionally, while the second implies that she is a sturdy physically. Now, apply these two terms to a table—a “strong table” and a “sturdy table” have essentially the same meaning.
III. Types of Connotations
Most of the examples above can be categorized as having either positive, negative, or neutral connotation, or sometimes both positive and negative, depending on how they are used.
A word whose connotation implies positive emotions and associations. For example, “the aroma of my grandmother’s cooking” produces a positive association, because the word “aroma” implies that the smell is pleasing and inviting.
A word whose connotation implies negative emotions and associations. If we exchange the adjective “aroma” in the above sentence so that it now reads “the stench of my grandmother’s cooking,” the meaning changes completely. Though both “aroma” and “stench” mean smell, “stench” has a negative connotation; thus, the meal sounds much less appealing.
A word whose connotation is neither positive nor negative. For example, when speaking about a pet, the word “dog” has a neutral connotation; but, the word “mutt” has a negative connotation, and the word “purebred” has a positive connotation.
IV. Importance of Connotation
Most words have two meanings: a denotative (literal) meaning, and a connotative (implied) meaning. It is important to note that not all connotations are solely positive or solely negative—depending on how a word is used, it can connote different things. Thus it is one of the most critical things to consider when it comes to word choice, in both literature and everyday conversation. In fact, the feelings or meanings associated with words can be everything. Connotations set the tone when writing and speaking, and clarify one’s intentions —they can elicit certain emotions or reactions or help to provide distinct impressions of things. Conversely, choosing words with the wrong connotation can produce an undesired reaction or emotion and misrepresent one’s intentions.
V. Examples of Connotation in Pop Culture
In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel and Clementine’s conversation on the train takes several unanticipated turns because of the word “nice:”
Clementine: I apply my personality into paste.Joel: Oh, I doubt that very much.Clementine: Well, you don’t know me so… you don’t know, do you?Joel: Sorry, I was… just trying to be nice.Clementine: Yeah… I got it…Clementine: … I’m Clementine, by the way.Joel: I’m Joel.Clementine: Hi, Joel.Clementine: No jokes about my name… Nooo, you wouldn’t do that. You were trying to be nice.Joel: I don’t know any jokes about your name.
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Here, the word “nice” has a negative connotation for Clementine—for her it means dull, ordinary, pleasant; it has no truly significant meaning. Joel, however, is an awkward man, and tries to use the word in a simple but positive way—clearly he finds Clementine to be a bit strange and intense, but chooses to be “nice” by using the word “nice” to describe her. For him, “nice” has a positive connotation, thus he is taken aback when Clementine has such a dramatic reaction.
In the Christmas comedy movie Elf, Buddy the Elf gets himself into a lot of trouble because of his lack of understanding of the word “elf “in everyday American society, as can be seen from the following scene:
Buddy: I didn’t know you had elves working here!Miles: Oh, well, you’re, you’re hilarious, My Friend.Walter: He doesn’t, uh… Get back to the story, please.Miles: All right, okay.