Monday, 22 April 2019

On Connotation

Connotation or denotaton? by Zach Weiner, of SMBC Comics.

By Lina Scarborough

A while ago, a friend waltzed up to me and asked: ‘What is a connotation?’ . Knowing he likes to pull my leg once in a while, I decided to humour him. ‘It is the description attached to a word’, I answered as we started walking.

After a pause for thought, he replied: ‘Ah, but when I have an object... ’ he stooped down to pick up some pebbles, ‘the words that come to mind describe the colour, the shape...’ he turned the stones between his fingers, ‘the weight’, he dropped them suddenly, ‘but not all of those are connotations’.

I paused and added, ‘Then, it’s a description that does not pertain to some thing’s physical properties’.

He looked amused and told me he had come across several definitions that were besides the point - or entirely flawed. Whether or not my definition satisfied him, he did not say.

Of course, not only objects with physical properties can have connotations. In fact, it is mostly adjectives that contain nuances. For example, the word stingy holds a negative undertone, whereas thrifty implies something akin to a virtue – someone who likes to be smart with their money. But what is this desire to find an exact label for something? What is, and why is there joy in finding the precise term for an object, a situation, an abstract feeling?

Let us define a label, or better - a term, as a chiefly one-word noun. Then a definition is a phrase which explains exactly what that label encompasses. The definition: waking up from a pleasant dream feeling contented. There is a term for that feeling – euneirophrenia.

We can define a great number of things in different manners. The only limit is our personal experience or imagination. The latter of course, poses the question whether one can imagine a feeling into existence (but that’s a whole other topic - and possibly borders on schizophrenia).

A private world

Connotations create private microcosms in romantic couples. Your partner might replace the word ‘walk ‘with ‘locomotion’ to avoid unnecessarily exciting the dog that recognizes the term ‘walkies!’ or ‘walk!’. Or, you might lightheartedly call a USB a hockey-stick, and no-one but your significant other and close family would understand what on earth you meant. The shared private language creates a sense of insiders versus outsiders and, consequently, facilitates intimacy and brings a lightheartedness to the relationship. Carol Bruess, director of family studies at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, says: ‘When couples have their own language rituals…they feel like they know one another in a way that others don’t, and that they have a strong connection or bond to each other.’

Connotations can also be cultural. Don’t offend a Chinese by gifting him a watch – the Chinese symbol for watch (送钟, sòng zhōng) has the same pronunciation as [attending] a funeral! Giving somebody a watch implies that you are patiently waiting for their death - not a message you want to convey...

Some cultural connotations are oddly specific. Let us again consult the Chinese for inspiration: Do not give somebody in China a green hat - it is a metaphor for man’s wife having been unfaithful (帶綠帽, dài lǜ mào, with green hat). But why specifically green? A turtle is green, and turtles hide their heads in their shells, so calling someone a ‘turtle’ is deemed offensive since it's also equivalent to calling someone a coward!

Using a certain connotation can also help one identify with a community, fulfilling the need to belong. In African-American communities one doesn’t call a friend ‘mate’ like the British or Australians do, one calls a friend ‘brother’, or simply bro. Such cultural connotations are one reason it is so hard to learn a foreign language. Or rather, why it is so hard not to make embarrassing faux pas when speaking as a beginner.

Even in your own native language and communities, people fight to have certain words de-stigmatized or entirely made redundant. This is particularly applicable to the historically more vulnerable members of society. No one would dream of calling a disabled person a retard nowadays unless they were deliberately seeking to insult.

In parts of the world women have started pointing out double-standards that occur when labelling the same behaviour. Perhaps a boy is praised for taking initiative and being a leader, whereas a girl might be scolded for the same and labeled as ‘bossy’. Where does one draw the line between being steadfast, tenacious, or stubborn? How does one distinguish between meticulous or picky? Is it not usually somewhat subjective as opposed to universal?

The neuroscientist Terence Deacon has said: ‘The way that language represents objects, events, and relationships provides a uniquely powerful economy of reference…It entirely shapes our thinking and the ways we know the physical world.’ Building on this, I could say that the reason it is satisfying to find the exact word to convey what I mean, as opposed to using a phrase or long-winded definition (this in itself needs a term!), is because it creates a sense of power. What I can define, I can examine, influence, control. Hence associations around words are the building blocks around spiritual or emotional depth and intellectual growth.

If I understand that what I feel is called leucocholy - a state of feeling that accompanies preoccupation with trivial and insipid diversions – I know how to find a more productive pursuit to ease my feelings of anxiousness instead of faffing around (as the British say). The origin of leucocholy dates back to the 18th century, and literally means ‘white bile’ and is opposed to melancholy, which is ‘black bile’.  In this way, connotation therefore reveals something about our psyche. Freud may have realized this when he started using so-called ‘free association’ as a method for diagnosing and alleviating what was going on in his patient’s unconscious processes.

My friend later informed me that he had found a definition of connotation that he liked: ‘Connotation is the illusion of denotation’, he said.

And yet - this same illusion is the reason that poetry can exist, and is what gives depth and flavour to our language and our lives.


Keith said...

An enjoyable and informative essay, Lina. It prompted me to toss a few related thoughts into the hopper…

I see denotations as being formulaic and prescriptive. Their meaning seems intentionally constrained by narrowly separated linguistic guiderails — framed as terse, matter-of-fact dictionary definitions. In that way, denotations more precisely conform to custom and culture’s norms, prescribed by some sort of authority. Denotation’s prescriptive nature can prove helpful, however, especially for conveying precision.

On the other hand, I see connotations as freer spirits: suggestive, nuanced, unpredictive, instinctual, and associative. They’re complex. Not to sound too romantic in the metaphor, but connotations, in their looser conveyance of meaning, more easily take flight. The latter, however, can be either a convenience (as in literature, for example), or a nuisance (as in science, for example), or both (as in history, for example) — flexibly but crucially depending on intent and context.

The meaning of connotations is largely unconstrained, even by culture. Connotations may commonly be more unintentional than intentional. That is, when people read or hear words, they might perceive and internalise connotations that may not have been meant by the writer or speaker and accordingly are accidental. They just happen. Meaning is thereby in the eye and ear of the beholder.

There’s more risk, I therefore suggest, of connotations tripping up even our best efforts at communication than might the more literal nature of denotations. There are hazards. Yet, in a paradoxical and very human way, we accept that risk for the sake of enriching language, and thus in turn of enriching thought, through connotations. Connotations, in that manner, are among the many deep-seated factors that make us, us.

To add to the semantic mystery, the word ‘connation’ is itself demonstrably rife with connotations.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you Lina for an interesting post. My own view, much advertised, is that the way we actually use language, apart from imaginative use, we do not reduce our words to denotation or even denotation-with-connotation. Denotation and connotation, and related things such as polysemes and cultural knowledge, are relatively new, and emerged as the Age of Reason emerged. Yes, 'what gives depth and flavour' to our lives is important. I argue further that our loss of language as it was lies at the core of our global ecological crisis today. But enough for one comment.

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