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Ministry of Education.

Words and Meaning

A very simple approach to words is to see them as labelling things in the world. This works well for some words. Concrete nouns like cat, sheep, or frog are used to refer to certain animals that can readily be described or pointed to.

However, there are many nouns for which this approach will not work. We cannot point to abstractions like feelings, employment, or pleasure, even though we understand the meaning of these concepts. Other word classes also present problems with this simple approach: we cannot point to referents for words like when or until.

It is useful to make a distinction between this kind of "naming" meaning, which is called denotation, and another kind of meaning, which is called connotation. Connotation refers to the associations that words can have in our minds.

The denotation of the noun pig is a non-ruminant omnivorous ungulate.

For some people, the word pig might have connotations of dirty and smelly; others will think of inquisitive or cheeky.

Often we have a choice of words that can express our point of view. One person's din might be another person's music. Some might see terrorists where others see freedom fighters. One person's stunning architectural statement might be another's hideous blot on the landscape.

The American linguist S. J. Hayakawa invented the terms purr words and snarl words to describe words with different associations in people's minds.

thinking day-dreaming
dancing jiggling about
smiling smirking
weeping snivelling
writing scribbling

Some words bring very different connotations to mind among different groups of people.

  • feminist
  • rugby
  • socialist
  • casino

Those whose profession it is to persuade us, such as advertisers, politicians, preachers, and orators, need to be sensitive to the connotations of the words they use. One way of testing the connotative meaning of words is to ask speakers to rank them on a scale of different qualities.

good bad
sincere insincere
happy unhappy
light dark
beautiful ugly
strong weak
valuable worthless
smooth rough

It might seem a little strange, but people seem to be quite good at saying whether words like natural or fresh or smelly or fragrant are smooth or rough, light or dark, valuable or worthless.

The connotations of words are culturally determined.

In English, the word "red" can have negative connotations of "blood" or "communism". In Russian, krasnyj, the word for "red", has very good connotations. The Russian word for "beautiful" is prekrasnyj, which contains within it the word for "red".

Summary of Terms

denotation connotation
purr words and snarl words  

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009