Semantics 2

Robert Harris
Version Date: June 8, 2000

Denotation and Connotation

Words have two main kinds of meaning, their denotation and their connotation. Denotation is the literal meaning or definition of a word--the explicit, particular, defined meaning, which usually can be pinned down with reasonable precision. Perhaps it could be called the overt, intellectual meaning of a word. Dictionary definitions are denotative meanings.

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:
Word Denotation Connotation
new recent origin better, improved
snake round reptile horrible beast
adequate good enough not very good
excuse explanation weak reason

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:

Many words do have personal connotations for each individual. The feelings or images evoked by the word "cemetery," for example, depend upon your experiences--the cemeteries you have visited, whether you have buried a loved one, and so on. But generally we mean by connotation the common suggestive meaning or evaluative sense, shared and understood by all educated users of the language. Connotation is not the slang meaning of a word, though, of course, slang meanings can affect connotations.

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.


Some careful attention to the definition of words should be paid by the critical thinker, first of course, because accurate, exact terms with agreed-upon meaning are crucial to the fair and productive progress of an argument. Many disagreements arise largely because of a lack of definition of terms: when each arguer's terms are understood, the argument ends. It has been said that "just definitions either prevent or put an end to disputes" (Nathaniel Emmons). That's a bit exaggerated, but it does underscore the importance of operating one's head with a good understanding of the meanings of words used.

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:

You see, then, that a definition does not simply give the meaning of a word. A definition is an attempt to express the essential nature of a thing and when we take it as such, we program our minds to perceive and expect in narrow and specific ways. It is important to look up words you don't know--in more than one dictionary--but it's also important to think deeply about what words really mean and how they can be flexed or altered--and how they flex and alter you.

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.


"Euphemism" comes from the Greek for "fair speech." A good definition borrowed from a literary handbook is "the substitution of a mild and pleasant expression for a harsh and blunt one." Euphemisms have traditionally been common in subject areas that people do not like talking about directly. The most common of these involve death, sex, and bodily functions. Some examples:
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:

The Bible uses euphemisms on occasion to soften the subject matter under discussion: In Genesis the word "thigh" is used as a euphemistic substitute for "testicles" (24:2, 24:9, 47:29), while "knew" (KJV) euphemizes sex (e.g. 4:1: "Adam knew his wife.")

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
steal appropriate from
civilian deaths collateral damage 
abortion interruption of pregnancy
pro-abortion pro-choice
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
poor economically disadvantaged
crippled handicapped; physically challenged, differently abled
retarded developmentally disabled
medical malpractice therapeutic misadventure

Some euphemisms are used to prevent unwanted connotations:
Unwanted connotation Euphemism
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.
Euphemism Meaning?
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:

mad....crazy....insane....deranged....mentally ill
prison....penal institution....correctional facility....rehabilitation center
drunk....alcoholic....problem drinker
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:
safety-related occurrence accident
incomplete success failure
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:

dismissed... fired
rental consultant...apartment manager
real estate associate...real estate salesman
product representative...salesman
maintenance engineer...custodian...janitor
senior citizen...old person...prime timer
old age...golden years
automotive technician...auto mechanic
animal control officer...dog catcher (does more than catch dogs)
table attendant...server…waiter
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
roommate...cohabitant...POSSLQ...live-in lover...mistress
perspire...sweat...glow...nervous wetness
strong willed...stubborn
internal revenue service...tax collector
takes drugs...experiments with recreational chemicals
serviceman...repairman...service technician

Emotive Language

The fallacy of emotive language involves the use of words aimed at the feelings instead of at the reason. When certain words used in an argument have the purpose of stirring the emotions or getting the juices of feeling going to block an opponent's reasoning ability, then the fallacy of emotive language is committed. Many words have strong positive or negative connotations attached to them, and these words can make the hearer or reader tend to react to words instead of to the real issue behind them. The way around emotive language, of course, is to focus on the argument and not allow yourself to be distracted by words--however evocative or incendiary they may be.

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:

In a more sophisticated form, careful word choice in adjectives, verbs, nouns, metaphors, and similes can be used to evoke negative feelings: In addition to the use of negative emoters, many arguers are fond of using words which have a positive emotive force. Notice how easy it is to take a word standing for an ideal or concept we like and to attach it to some concept that the arguer wishes to recommend to us: Few people feel comfortable opposing anything described as involving freedom, liberation, rights, progress, justice, and so on. Many arguers successfully exploit these wonderful-sounding words to gather support for programs or candidates, even though the real issues are not made clear: Among the biggest users of positive emotive language are the advertisers. We Americans are willing to spend billions of dollars to buy happiness, and the advertisers do their best to sell it to us. Brand names themselves are designed to make us feel happy, confident, modern, important, sexy, or some combination of these. Just look at what we can buy:
Cigarettes: Detergents:
Now Cold Power
True Cheer
More Joy
Lucky Mr. Clean
Perfumes: Toothpastes:
Tabu Gleem
Seduction Ultra Brite
My Sin Close Up
Obsession Aqua Fresh
Sex Appeal  

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?


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.
--Albert Einstein

A good catchword can obscure analysis for fifty years.
--Wendell Wilkie

Exercise 1

Explain the different connotations, associations, and built-in judgments in each of the definitions below.

A woman is pregnant with
a fetus
an unborn baby
fetal tissue
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

Exercise 2

Words are not neutral. In fact, almost every word has some connotative flavor to it, and as a result, almost every statement or question has some subjective slant to it. If you are not careful, someone else's diction (choice of words) will help you do your thinking for you.

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?

A. After plummeting ten points during the course of the morning's trading, the stock market struggled back slowly during the first hour after lunch, for a net gain of sixteen points.
B. The price of gold skyrocketed three dollars an ounce today. Yesterday it had declined three dollars.
C. 1. The judge ordered explanation of GM's alternative engine usage.
2. The judge ordered disclosure of GM's alternative engine usage.
3. The judge ordered disclosure of GM's engine substitution practices.
4. The judge ordered the exposure of GM's engine switching practices.
D. 1. A group of businessmen is funding the association.
2. A clique of business tycoons is bankrolling the interest group.
E. 1. Court upholds smokers' rights.
2. Court favors smokers' privileges.
3. Court denies non-smokers' rights.
4. Court tramples on non-smokers' constitutional freedoms.
F. 1. Hyperactive children to be given medication.
2. Hyperactive children to be drugged.
3. Chemical to be tested on hyperactive children.
4. Children to be guinea pigs in biological experiment.
5. Simple pill holds hope for hyperactive children.
G. Senator Jones (announces, reveals, boasts, admits) he supports funding bill.
H. These tires are made with (non-bouncing, sluggish, lazy, non-resilient, high-hysteresis) rubber.
I. Shall we support the (demands, needs, requirements, requests, greediness) of the (patriots, guerrillas, terrorists, soldiers, anarchists)?
J. Senator Smith (reports, says, claims, insists) that he knew nothing about the scandal.
K. 1. Should students in the dorms be set adrift without the guidance of a curfew, or should they be encouraged toward responsible behavior??
2. Should students in the dorms be subjected to the restraints of arbitrary curfews, or should they be free to develop their own timetables?
Notice from this last example that question framing can easily be rigged to make one response psychologically much easier to give than the other. This first question asks if students should be "encouraged," and contains the positive connotations attached to "guidance" and "responsible behavior," as an alternative to their being "set adrift." Naturally the psychological force is toward encouraging them and so this question is loaded in favor of curfews. The second question is just the opposite. The words "subjected to," "arbitrary" and "restraints" all have negative connotations, while the word "free" is very positive. This question, then, pressures the hearer for a response opposing curfews. Many polls are more or less slanted (or even rigged) this way. Few people feel comfortable answering "no" to a question involving someone's "rights" or "freedoms." But notice that each of two opposite camps can be the ones with the rights or freedoms: So when you read the results of a poll, be sure you pay attention to the wording of the questions.

Exercise 3

Why would a campaign organization choose one title over another for its committee to defeat a ballot measure which would increase the alcohol tax?


Terms and Concepts

descriptive definition
stipulative definition
normative definition
persuasive definition
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.

Test Yourself

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.

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com