Connotation is the suggestive meaning of a word--all the values,
judgments, and status implied by a word, the historical and associative
accretion of "unspoken significance" behind the literal meaning. Many words
have evaluative implications behind them, and convey a positive or negative
attitude toward the things they name; this flavor of the word or its overtone
of meaning--whether it makes you feel like smiling, sneering, kissing,
conquering, or giving up--is the word's connotation. We might say it is
the emotional meaning of the word. This meaning is seldom found in the
dictionary. Here are just a few examples:
|new||recent origin||better, improved|
|snake||round reptile||horrible beast|
|adequate||good enough||not very good|
Let's look at the word "adequate" for a moment. Our society has become so drenched in exaggeration that a word like this is almost insulting in its connotative force, while its original denotative meaning was rather positive. Suppose you hear an interchange like this: "How do you like your car?" "Oh, it's adequate." What is your reaction? Or suppose you hear this: "How do you like your wife?" "Oh, she's adequate." This last speaker may love his wife deeply, but he does not convey that impression, even though he used a denotatively nice or positive word, because the connotations of a word are inescapable--they remain attached to it, whether we like it or not.
An interesting example of divided connotation involves the word "laser." In engineering circles, laser technology is looked upon with admiration, and products with laser operating systems--surveying equipment, photocopying machines, and bar-code readers in supermarkets--are rightly seen as very advanced. But many members of the general public, perhaps thinking of the killer rays they have seen in science fiction films, respond to the word "laser" with negative feelings. That's why we see the euphemism "scanner" substituted in popular advertisements for or discussions of laser-using equipment.
Sometimes two or more words will have the same or almost the same denotation (definition), but will have very different connotations. How does your response to each of these words differ from those it is paired with? Which seem positive, which seem negative, and which seem neutral? As you read each list, try to focus in your mind a single object or person, and see how changing the word changes your perception or image of the thing.
house - - - home - - - living accommodation
childlike - - - childish - - - juvenile
girl - - - woman - - - lady - - - chick - - - broad - - - bird - - - female human
child - - - kid - - - youngster
boss - - - superior - - - management - - - supervisor
adult - - - grown up
naked - - - nude
single girl - - - unmarried woman - - - spinster
boyfriend - - - steady guy - - - male companion
taste - - - flavor
cheap - - - inexpensive
rich - - - wealthy - - - loaded
slender - - - skinny
lawyer - - - attorney - - - legal representative or legal counsel
quiz - - - test - - - exam - - - examination - - - midterm
Connotation is often a product of context. Depending on how it is used, a word might have a positive, neutral, or negative connotation to it. Note this variability in these paired examples:
Denotation is also often a product of context. An old joke makes use of this fact:
"Do you put sugar or steer manure on your strawberries?"
Here, the meaning of "put on . . . your strawberries" is dependent on time and place. Are we talking about your breakfast table habits or your farming procedures? In fact, the particular verb "put on" has a variety of meanings, all depending on context:
Sally, please put on a Beethoven record.
put on a Beethoven T-shirt.
put on Junior's tennis shoes.
put on your Emeraude perfume.
put on a smile.
put on fewer airs.
put on the dinner plates.
put on Harry.
put on the television.
put on the car wax.
And note the flexibility of a word like "love":
I love my girlfriend.
I love ice cream.
I love my parents.
I love sports cars.
I love my brother.
I love good literature.
The word "light" is another example. What does it mean? What comes to your mind when you think of this word? It really depends on context, doesn't it? Light is
1. the opposite of heavy
2. the opposite of dark
3. an object giving illumination (e.g. a lamp)
4. to set fire to
5. to land on something
6. (metaphorically) comprehension, knowledge
7. (metaphorically and theologically) Christ
Remember, then, that context is a part of meaning, and that there is a danger of misunderstanding words when they are taken out of their context. This context, by the way, includes not just the immediate sentence or paragraph where the word is found, but includes the whole composition, and to some extent the entire language from which it is drawn.
In addition to the value of definition in argument, and perhaps even more important, is an understanding of the power of definition itself. Definition controls both perception and expectation. How you perceive something, what facts about the thing you allow into your consciousness, is to a very large extent controlled by the definition of the word or label put on it. We define first and then perceive. Thus, our culture, which has usually done the defining for us, controls how we see or understand something.
Similarly, how we define a word creates a collection of expectations associated with that word--what we expect from a "textbook," a "marriage," a "movie," or a "friend."
For example, what is a problem? Let's look at the dictionary: Oh, it's a "situation that presents uncertainty, perplexity, or difficulty." Well then, if we are trying to find happiness in life, we will want to avoid these things called problems, won't we?
Now let's redefine problem. My definition of a problem is "an opportunity to improve one's life by exchanging a desired state for an undesired on. A problem is the first step in goal achievement." Now, all of a sudden, problems are not things to be avoided at all costs, but things to be met with optimism as challenges to build a better future.
What's a museum? Dictionary: "A building in which works of artistic, historical, and scientific value are cared for and exhibited." So you go visit one occasionally. But suppose we define museum as "a collection of artifacts." That is, the collection is the museum, not the building. This suggests then that the museum might be able to move around. Put it in a van and bring it to the poor in the ghetto or to the senior citizens in Sun City. Or a museum might be an archaeological site. Bring the visitors directly to the dig because the artifacts there are the museum. Or a museum might be a private collection--of shells, stamps, coins, etc. that could be exhibited to individuals or perhaps made accessible through publication of photographs. A museum could then exist as a catalog, within a catalog.
Okay, what is Christianity? Think of the difference in perception and expectation created by each of these definitions:
There are four main kinds of definition.
1. The descriptive definition. This is the plainest sort, the kind that tells what a thing is or is like, the kind usually found in the dictionary.
Hatchet--a small, short handled ax, for use with one hand.
2. The stipulative definition. This is a special definition offered by a writer or organization for convenience of understanding. A mutually agreed upon special, specific meaning of a term that ordinarily has another meaning, or a similar but vague meaning.
Highly Polished--the term as used here means having a surface smoothness of less than 60 microns variation.
Expert System--this term shall refer to any software program consisting of a knowledge base and an inference engine operating upon that knowledge base.
3. The normative definition. This is a definition intended to set a standard or even a goal for something rather than to describe the thing as it really is. The confusing of normative and descriptive definitions is a common source of much trouble, argument, and unhappiness.
Boy Scout--a youth who is trustworthy, loyal, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
Scientist--an objective, highly trained, specialized observer and evaluator of facts, who willingly accepts whatever conclusions they lead to.
Knife--a strong, sharp, bladed instrument used for cutting.
4. The persuasive definition. This is a definition designed to persuade the reader or hearer of the worth of the defined term.
Speeding ticket--a tax forced upon certain motorists at random by the police and designed to raise extra revenue for already bloated local governments.
|Direct and blunt||Euphemism|
|die||pass away, pass on, go to be with the Lord, called home, gone to heaven, departed|
|copulate||engage in sexual intercourse, make love, have marital relations, pitching woo|
|urinate||pass water, number one, go to the toilet, go to the bathroom, wee wee, relieve yourself|
The more uncomfortable we are with a subject, the more euphemisms we construct to get around talking about it in direct terms. Notice:
Often a euphemism is used to make something bad sound better, and in
this case, the disguise is usually deceptive or wrong.
|Direct and blunt||Euphemism|
|murder||terminate, neutralize, put a hit on|
|lie||misstatement; misspeaking; plausible denial|
|civilian deaths||collateral damage|
|abortion||interruption of pregnancy|
|whore house||cat house, house of the rising sun, massage parlor, sporting house, Turkish bath, body shop|
A real problem with these kinds of euphemism is that they can be dangerous by clouding thought and allowing the users to fool themselves. For example, you certainly wouldn't want to obstruct justice, but you might be talked into "containing the perimeter of the damaging information." You would probably object to stealing documents in a burglary, but you might be talked into retrieving vital information during a covert operation. And you certainly wouldn't want to kill your unborn child, but you might agree to the removal of the unwanted fetal tissue.
Some euphemisms are designed to protect the guilty, as when a prostitute solicits a customer. She asks, "Do you want to party?" or "Are you looking for a good time?"
Other times a euphemism is designed to prevent strong negative stereotypes
from prejudicing a hearer:
|Old and blunt term||New term|
|crippled||handicapped; physically challenged, differently abled|
|medical malpractice||therapeutic misadventure|
Some euphemisms are used to prevent unwanted connotations:
|man's purse||tote bag, travel bag, duffel bag, camera case|
|suspect arrested||a man is helping police with their inquiries|
|bastard||illegitimate child, love child, child born out of wedlock, child|
A particularly important use of perhaps desirable euphemism involves the economic change occurring in many countries. Faced with the failure of socialism, many Marxist countries are now adopting capitalist economic incentives and structures while desiring to remain socialist in name and theory. This creates a problem because no self-respecting socialist would ever call himself a capitalist. In China, capitalist movement is called "market-oriented reform." The Chinese slogan, "To get rich is glorious" is directed to socialists who are now able to possess the rewards of individual initiative.
In the Soviet Union, the adoption of capitalist market structures and incentives was part of perestroika, "reconstruction," and was referred to as "economic reform" and "liberalization."
In the African nations, the situation is even more sensitive because the hated word "capitalism" is associated with the colonial oppressors (usually the Dutch or English) who ruled the now-independent nations for so long. To turn from socialism to capitalism would sound too much like a return to colonialism. So the introduction of capitalism must be under names like "market incentives," "family businesses," and so forth.
The point is that without the use of these euphemisms, the changes would not be permitted. As Neil Postman says, "Euphemizing is a perfectly intelligent method of generating new and useful ways of perceiving things."
It may be useful to generate several alternative terms or labels to describe any given person, job, program, system, group, or whatever, just to gain a fuller and more complete and maybe fairer picture of it.
Euphemisms, then, can be used nefariously and with evil intent, but they can also be applied usefully to break stereotypes, change fixed perceptions, and provide alternative views of things.
A real problem with euphemisms arises from the fact that since euphemisms
are often created by appropriating a legitimate term, use of the term in
its legitimate sense becomes very difficult, if not impossible. Further,
euphemisms are sometimes understood as "secret symbols" for something bad
when in fact they might not be. This problem arises from the fact that
many euphemisms are inherently vague or ambiguous.
|underachiever||slow learner? smart but lazy? emotionally troubled?|
|massage parlor||brothel? massage parlor?|
|damage control||obstructing justice? controlling damage?|
|alternative lifestyle||lives differently? deviant behavior?|
|unauthorized withdrawal||bank robbery? embezzlement? theft?|
Even seemingly clear and precise euphemisms can be problematic because they channel our thinking along certain often incorrect lines. The term "homeless" for "people living on the street" is a good example. The implication of this euphemism is that what street people, formerly bums, need is a home, a place to live. This fact masks the fact that the homeless are really a varied and mixed population of mentally ill, alcoholics, drug addicts, beggars, and some people actually down on their luck and in need of a job and a home. Many street people refuse to go to shelters or homes, so simply thinking of them as homeless is deceptive. The old term for these people, bums, is similarly deceptive because it lumps them all together into the category of lazy, shiftless people, almost deserving society's neglect.
Most people catch on to the use of euphemisms pretty quickly and grow adept at translating them back into the "real" term. Thus, the euphemism itself takes on the bad connotations of the bad word it was intended to replace. When this happens, another euphemism must be found:
prison....penal institution....correctional facility....rehabilitation center
used car....pre-owned car....experienced automobile....resale
When you come across a euphemism, then, ask whether it is appropriately or inappropriately used, whether it hides some fact that should not be hidden or helpfully changes perception toward a stereotype, or simply provides an alternative view. No single attitude toward such usages can be adopted because cases and usages differ.
Other euphemisms for examining:
|fiscal underachievers||poor people|
|non-goal oriented member of society||street person, bum|
|downsizing personnel||firing employees|
|media courier||paper boy|
|organoleptic analysis||to smell something|
|career associate scanning professional||grocery check-out clerk|
And compare some of these alternative ways of expressing and thinking about something:
rental consultant...apartment manager
real estate associate...real estate salesman
senior citizen...old person...prime timer
old age...golden years
automotive technician...auto mechanic
animal control officer...dog catcher (does more than catch dogs)
financial aid...unemployment compensation...welfare
valet...parking lot attendant
beautician...hair dresser…hair stylist
sexually active...promiscuous...sleep around...fornicator...slut
has an open marriage...commits adultery
internal revenue service...tax collector
takes drugs...experiments with recreational chemicals
It is important to note that not every use of emotionally loaded language is fallacious, for occasionally we feel strongly about an issue and want to show our joy or make our "righteous indignation" clear. The fallacy occurs when our intention is to persuade someone and when our language interferes with, colors, or substitutes for legitimate reasons. If the words get in the way of the argument, stirring the audience up to a point where thinking gives way to emotion, then the fallacy has been committed.
Occasionally emotive language will appear in conjunction with or as a part of oversimplification, ad hominem, ad populum, and the appeal to pity fallacies.
In its simplest form, negative emotive language is simply name calling. Consider such arguments as these:
|My Sin||Close Up|
Advertisers also like to use ambiguous positive emoters to puff their products. Tires are a good example. The terms "heavy duty," "premium," and "four ply rating" have no standard or defined meaning, but they certainly make the product sound good, don't they?
And of course how often do you see these powerful words screaming at you from the label of some product?
NEW! FREE! MIRACLE! IMPROVED!
On its subtlest level emotive language can be used for emotional coloration in what might otherwise appear to be descriptive prose; the language can either convey the writer's attitudes--of approval or disapproval--or color by emotive terms certain objects or events. How a situation is characterized by a writer can have a significant effect upon our perceptions of and attitudes toward it.
On the Dangers of Emotive Language
Although words exist for the most
part for the transmission of ideas, there are some which produce such violent
disturbance in our feelings that the role they play in transmission of
ideas is lost in the background.
A good catchword can obscure analysis
for fifty years.
A woman is pregnant with
an unborn baby
a pre-born child
Abortion is the
termination of a pregnancy.
the killing of a fetus.
the murder of a human being.
a simple birth control procedure
the removal of unwanted tissue
In the following examples, what seems to be the attitude or view of the writer in each case? How does the choice of words attempt to sway you?
fallacy of emotive language
1. Distinguish between the four kinds of definition.
2. Euphemisms can be either helpful or harmful. Discuss the circumstances that make a euphemism helpful or harmful.
3. Define emotive language and give examples of both positive and negative emotive words.
For each argument, explain how the fallacy of emotive language is being committed:
1. This proposal has all the logic of a septic tank: it just sits there and stinks. The other proposal is better because it is a breath of fresh air. That's reason enough to vote for it.
2. And I hope that at the polls you will continue on that wise path you have begun here tonight. For you will be asked to vote soon, and I want you to know that in voting for me you are voting for truth, for dignity, for decency and love, for the goodness of the aspiring human spirit, moving forward into progress and greatness, meeting all obstacles as they come, conquering difficulties in the valiant struggle to establish the great American way of life we all hold so dear.
3. Ugh! you meat eaters! How can you stand to grind your teeth on a
lump of decaying flesh hacked from the carcasses of dead animals? And you
vegetarians! You sit there smugly chewing on the rotting sex organs of
woody plants. That's what slugs do, too.