Whether writing or speaking, the words we use convey images to our audience. The literal, dictionary definition of a particular word is its denotation; the implied meaning or perception associated with it is its connotation. Selecting the right words for the thoughts we want to communicate requires knowing both their literal meaning and the emotional context surrounding them.
Many words have positive, negative, or neutral connotations that add color to their literal meanings. For example, calling someone a chef will generally imply more skill and prestige than saying they are a cook, even though both words denote a person whose job is preparing food to eat. Saying a woman’s hair looks nice can have a neutral, or perhaps negative, connotation even though the word “nice” is generally considered complimentary. Seeing the name of an inner-city gang scrawled across the wall of a building might make a gang member feel pride, but the same sight might incite anger or fear in other people in the community. Factors such as age, culture, education, and life experiences will affect how a person perceives certain words.
Using words that connote more than their literal meaning can affect the tone and mood of what we write, and adds depth to both fiction and nonfiction by stimulating the reader’s imagination and invoking an emotional response.
What are some words you react to based on their connotation more than their denotation? What type of words do you view as “neutral?” Do you think about the meaning of the words you are using more when you are writing than when you are speaking?