The literal meaning of a word, its denotation, is the definition that is given in the dictionary. That meaning is said to be the denotative meaning of the word. But our language contains as great many words that have, in addition, a special connotative meaning. For instance, the word home elicits a much warmer response from most people than the word house.
Home does denote the place where one lives, but it also connotes security, comfort and love. Realtors, of course, understand very well the distinction between the two words. Even though, in a technical sense, Realtors sell houses, they invariablycapitalize on the connotative meaning of the word home in their sales efforts. Similarly, calling a person a liar is likely to arouse much more resentment or hostility than calling him or her a fibber.
A shopper who cannot afford the suits displayed on the third floor is not told that cheap suits are in another department because cheap connotes something inferior and undesirable. Instead, the customer is directed to the budget section or to the moderate-priced clothing. In addition, an astute salesclerk knows that people in general prefer slender to skinny, mature to middle-aged and full-figured to fat or chubby.
In social conversation, a proper awareness of the power of connotation is important. We can alienate friends, acquaintances and colleagues at work by using words with unpleasant connotations or we can win their goodwill with words that evoke positive connotations. If a person is having difficulty reaching a decision, the person will be pleased if told that he or she is discriminating or selective but may take offense in being described as finicky or fussy. A person will react negatively if charged with being timid or indecisive but that same person would react positively if told thathe or she was prudent or cautious. Likewise most people prefer the term conservative to old-fashioned.
Sometimes a speaker deliberately attempts to create antagonism. For example, some politicians fill their speeches with words having connotations that may turn their listeners against rival candidates. Some politicians are fond of telling us that, unlike themselves, their rivals are playing politics. Reformers, in attacking what they regard as some civic or social evil, often use words that are intended to arouse anger or fear to result in action against what they see as an undesirable condition.
The connotative meaning of a word can have power. It offers possibilities both good and bad. Often a small word or phrase, dropped unwittingly here or there, produces a sharply negative reaction and serves to defeat the person who uses it.
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