Words Are Not Endowed with Fixed and Proper Meanings

When people object to how someone else uses a word, they often say, "That isn't its proper meaning." The word disinfor example, is frequently employed in the sense of and those who dislike this usage argue that the proper meaning of disinterested is "objective, unbiased."

In such arguments "proper meaning" generally signifies a meaning sanctioned by past usage or even by the original, etymological sense of the word. But the dogma that words come to us out of the past with proper and immutable—is a fallacy. The only meanings a word has are those that the speakers of the language choose to give it. If enough speakers of English use disinterested to mean "uninterested," then by definition they have given that meaning to the word.

Those who take a conservative attitude toward language have the right, even the duty, to resist changes which they feel lessen the efficiency of English. They should, however, base their resistance upon demonstrating why the change does make for inefficiency, not upon an authoritarian claim that it violates proper meaning.

As a user of words you should be guided by consensus, that is, the meanings agreed upon by your fellow speakers of English, the meanings recorded in dictionaries. We shall look at what dictionaries do in Chapter 29. For now, simply understand that dictionary definitions are not "proper meanings" but succinct statements of consensual meanings.

In most cases the consensus emerges from an activity in which individual language users participate without knowing that they are, in effect, defining words. The person who says "I was disinterested in the lecture" does not intend to alter the meaning of disinterested. He or she has simply heard the word used this way before. In a few cases people do act deliberately to establish a consensual meaning, as when mathematicians agree that the word googol will mean "10 raised to the 100th power." In any case, meaning is what the group consents to. This is the only "proper meaning" words have, and any subsequent generation may consent to alter a consensus.

But while the unconscious agreement which establishes the meaning of a word is a group activity, it originates with individuals. Particular speakers began using disinterested in the sense of "uninterested" or square in the sense of "extremely conventional and unsophisticated." From the usage of individual people the change spreads through the better or worse.

By such a process word meanings change, sometimes rapidly, sometimes glacially. Often the change occurs as a response to historical events. When the eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon writes of "the constitution of a Roman legion" he means how it was organized, not, as a modern reader might suppose, a written document defining that organization. The latter sense became common only after the late eighteenth century, with the spread of democratic revolutions and the formal writing down of a new government's principles.

Because words must constantly be adapted to a changing world, no neat one-to-one correspondence exists between words and meanings. On the contrary, the relationship is messy: a single word may have half a dozen meanings or more, while several words may designate the same concept or entity. Thus depression means one thing to a psychologist, another to an economist, and another still to a geologist. But psychological "depression" may also be conveyed by melancholia, the blues, or the dismals, in the dumps, low, and so on.

One-to-one correspondences do in fact exist in the highly specialized languages of science and technology and mathematics. To a chemist sodium chloride means only the compound and that compound is always designated in words by sodium chloride. The common term salt, in contrast, has a number of meanings, and we must depend on the context (that is, the words around it) to clarify which sense the writer intends:

Pass the salt.

She's the salt of the earth.

They're not worth their salt.

He's a typical old salt.

Her wit has considerable salt.

The crooks intended to salt the mine.

They are going to salt away all the cash they can.

But while one-to-one correspondences might seem desirable, having a distinct word for every conceivable object and idea and feeling would not be practical. The vocabulary would swell to unmanageable proportions. And probably we would like it less than we suppose. The inexact correspondence of words and meanings opens up possibilities of conveying subtleties of thought and feeling which an exactly defined vocabulary would exclude. The fact that sodium chloride means one thing and only one thing is both a virtue and a limitation. The fact that salt means many things is both a problem and an opportunity.

Words, then, are far from being tokens of fixed and permanent value. They are like living things, complex, many-sided, and responsive to pressures from their environment. They must be handled with care.

Denotation and Connotation

Denotation and connotation are aspects of a word's meaning, related but distinct. Denotation is a word's primary, specific sense, as the denotation of red is the color (or, from the viewpoint of physics, light of a certain wavelength). Connotation is the secondary meaning (or meanings), associated with but different from the denotation. Red, for instance, has several connotations: "socialist," "anger," and "danger," among others.1

Using a circle to represent a word, we may show the denotation as the core meaning and the connotation as

1. In logic denotation and connotation are used in somewhat different senses.

fringe meanings gathered about that core. The line enclosing the denotation (D in the diagram) is solid to signify that this meaning is relatively fixed. The line around the connotation (C) is broken to suggest that the connotative meanings of a word are less firm, more open to change and addition.

Connotations may evolve naturally from the denotation of a word, or they may develop by chance associations. Rose connotes "fragrant," "beautiful," "short-lived" because the qualities natural to the flower have been incorporated into the word. On the other hand, that red connotes "socialist" is accidental, the chance result of early European socialists' using a red flag as their banner.

Sometimes a connotative meaning splits off and becomes a second denotation, the nucleus, in effect, of another word configuration. Thus "socialist" has become a new primary meaning of red when used as a political term. Around this second nucleus other connotations have gathered, such as (for most Americans) "subversive," "un-American," "traitorous," and so on:

Often, though not inevitably, connotative meanings imply degrees of approval or disapproval and may arouse emotions such as affection, admiration, pity, disgust, hatred. Like positive and negative electrical charges, emotive connotations attract or repel readers with regard to the thing or concept the word.designates (though the exact degree of attraction or repulsion depends on how particular readers are themselves charged concerning the thing or concept). These positive and negative charges are extremely important to a word's connotation, and in later diagrams we indicate them by + and — signs.

Individual words vary considerably in the relative weight of their denotative and connotative meanings. Most technical terms, for example, have very little connotation. That is their virtue: they denote an entity or concept precisely and unambiguously without the possible confusion engendered by fringe meanings: diode, spinnaker, cosine. We may think of such words as small and nucleus, so to speak.

They have no circle of connotations around

Connotation looms larger than denotation in other cases. Some words have large and diffuse meanings. What matters is their secondary or suggestive meanings, not their relatively unimportant denotations. The expression old-fashioned, for instance, hauls a heavy load of connotations. It denotes "belonging to, or characteristic of, the past." But far more important than that central meaning is the connotation, or rather two quite different connotations, that have gathered about the nucleus: (1) "valuable, worthy of honor and emulation" and (2) "foolish, ridiculous, out-of-date; to be avoided." With such words the large outer, or connotative, circle is significant; the nucleus small and insignificant.

For many words denotation and connotation are both important aspects of meaning. Rose (in the sense of the flower) has a precise botanical denotation: "any of a genus (Rosa of the family Rosaceae, the rose family) of usu[ally] prickly shrubs with pinnate leaves and showy flowers having five petals in the wild state but being often double or semidouble under cultivation."2 At the same time rose also has strong connotations: "beautiful," "fragrant," "short-lived," and so on.


The denotation of any word is easy to learn: you need only look in a suitable dictionary. Understanding connotations, however, is more difficult. Dictionaries cannot afford the space to treat them, except in a very few cases. You can gain practical knowledge of a word's range of connotation only by becoming familiar with the contexts in which the word is used.

Context means the surroundings of a word. In a narrow sense, context is the other terms in the phrase, clause, sen-word's immediate linguistic environment. More broadly, context comprises all the other words in the passage, even the entire essay or book. It widens further to include a composition's relation to other works, why it was written, and so on. In speech, context in this inclusive sense involves the occasion of a conversation, the relationship between the talkers, even others who may be listening.

But one does not have to explore all the ramifications of context to get at a word's connotation. Usually the terms immediately around it supply the vital clue. Real old-fashioned

2. Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1963).

flavor printed on an ice cream carton tells us that here old-fashioned connotes "valuable, rich in taste, worthy of admiration (and of purchase)." Don't he old-fashioned—dare a new experience in an ad for men's cologne evokes the opposite connotation: "foolish, ridiculous, out-of-date."

Linguistic context acts as a selective screen lying over a word, revealing certain of its connotations, concealing others. Thus and "flavor" mask the unfavorable connotation of old-fashioned, leaving us aware only of the positive one. Here is a diagram of old-fashioned in the "real/flavor" context:

In the context of "don't/dare a new experience," the screening effect is just the opposite:

Not only does the linguistic context serve both to reveal and to hide certain of a word's connotations. It may also activate latent implications that ordinarily are not associated with a word. The meaning "rich in taste," for instance, is not one we customarily associate with old-fashioned. Yet in real old-fashioned flavor it comes to the surface.

Context also helps you determine whether a word is functioning primarily in its denotative or connotative sense. With words like rose that carry both kinds of meaning, only context reveals which is operating, or if both are in varying degrees. Clearly this sentence calls upon only the denotation of rose:

Our native wild roses have, in spite of their great variety, contributed little to the development of our garden roses.

But when the poet Robert Burns tells of his feelings for a young lady, while still denoting the flower, he uses the word primarily for its connotations:

my is like a red, red rose

That's newly sprung in June.

In choosing words, then, you must pay attention both to denotative and to connotative meaning. With a purely denotative word like say, the problem is simple. If you make a mistake with such a word, it is simply because you do not know what it means and had better consult a dictionary (or textbook). But when words must be chosen with an eye to their connotations, the problem is more difficult. Connotative meaning is more diffuse, less readily looked up in a reference book, more subtly dependent on context. Here mistakes are easier to make. For instance, if you want readers to like a character you are describing, it would be unwise to write "a fat man with a red face," even though the words are literally accurate. Fat and red are negatively charged in such a context. More positive would be "a stout [or plump] man with rosy cheeks."

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