A Thoroughly Incomprehensive and Unstructured Analysis of Connotations

Implied meanings can alter the communicated message, often unwittingly, and hence affect judgement. This is the reason that so many companies and organizations pay special attention to effective communication skills.

Introduction

At the risk of being unoriginal, I begin by defining a connotation[1], which is an idea or feeling that a word invokes for a person in addition to its literal or primary meaning. Many wouldn’t notice, but the title itself had multiple connotations. When I say incomprehensive, I mean that it isn’t detailed enough to be a thesis[2]. When I say unstructured, I mean that it is free-flowing and presents ideas in a form I see fit, and not in a generally accepted format. However, many would take the misleading heading to mean a lack of direction or form, and would immediately pass judgement on the author[3].

As such, we see that implied meanings can alter the communicated message, often unwittingly, and hence affect judgement. This is the reason that so many companies and organizations pay special attention to effective communication skills. The study of connotations, denotations and meaning in general is called semantics, and is a complex and subjective study.

Illustration[4]

Negative: There are over 2,000 vagrants in the city.

Neutral: There are over 2,000 people with no fixed address in the city.

Positive: There are over 2,000 homeless in the city.

While the sentences all reference the same people, ‘vagrants’ implies people who are a nuisance to the general populace, while ‘homeless’ seems to indicate a person deserving pity and help.

Impact

While the effect connotations have on general conversation and communication has been made clear, it is noteworthy that the degree to which a nuance is skewed increases over time, largely due to what is referred to in economics as “The Bandwagon Effect[5]”, and through circulation in education and mass media.

The most stark and effective example is the broad[6] region of political correctness, videlicet, the terms used to identify racial differences. In the case of those of African descent, the most commonly used terms are Negro, black, African-American and the pejorative ‘nigger’. While ‘nigger’ is definitely a contemptuous term originated from supremist colonists, the other three terms are still in general use. In the mid-20th century, ‘black’ was considered a more offensive term, and ‘coloured’ and ‘negro’ were the more polite terms. However, during the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, some black American leaders in the United States, notably Malcolm X, objected to the word, preferring Black, because they associated the word Negro with the long history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination that treated African Americans as second class citizens, or worse[7].

All three terms are still in use, though comedian Russell Peters has objected to the term African-American, stating that “You guys are not African.”

Another, not quite so obvious example is that of the word “nerd”. Originally and still meaning “a person who is single-mindedly skilled in a particular profession or discipline”, it attained a negative connotation largely due to Hollywood influence, eventually used to stereotypically describe socially inept and often extremely intelligent high school students. With rapid changes in fashion, particularly in the mid-2000s, the stereotypical portrayal of a bottom of the barrel student became the next big thing, and before you know it, glasses with heavy frames, coats and bowties became commonplace, eventually gaining its own niche in young adult fashion[8]. This change brought in another level to the meaning of the word, and has somewhat equalized and balanced out the extremities of implication of the word, whether positive or negative.

However, that is not all. The concept of implication, like other concepts, is also evolving and this is especially true of trends originating in and propagating through the internet. The connotations skew so much that eventually a secondary or tertiary meaning begins to be associated with the word. The greeting of “What’s up?[9]”, made popular by Bugs Bunny, is now a general indication of boredom in a conversation. It serves as a filler or as a silence-breaker, wherein the conversationalist reinitiates talks that have become dull or have been awkwardly paused due to some reason.

Example:

A: … and that is how to perform integral calculus on trigonometric identities.

B: Great. Thanks for all your help.

A: …

B: … So, sup?

Another example of change of meaning is of a word routine in talk nowadays – “Gay”. Originally, the word only meant carefree and/or happy. This meaning eventually began to exaggerate, enough that it attained a connotation of wickedness or sin[10]. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, it began to be used as a term to describe homosexuality, so much so that nearing the end of the 20th century, LGBT[11]  groups recommended it be used exclusively to describe people attracted to people of the same gender. However, the negative connotation also intensified around the same time (1970s), being used to mean “rubbish” or “stupid”. Hence both meanings are still used, and this can be accredited with being part of the reason that the gay community is still harshly ostracized. The ridicule that this word implies would be glaringly obvious if one would read the comment section of a popular YouTube video.[12] The use of this word has been criticized as homophobic, and a 2006 BBC ruling by the Board of Governors advised “caution on its use” for the following reason: “The word ‘gay’ in addition to being used to mean ‘homosexual’ or ‘carefree’, was often now used to mean ‘lame’ or ‘rubbish’. This is a widespread current usage of the word amongst young people… The word ‘gay’ … need not be offensive… or homophobic…”

A lot, lot more can be said on the topic and every word may be analysed separately, but having dealt with a few of the more important or prevalent ones, it would be safe to conclude that semantics and communication are delicate skills, and extreme caution needs to be exercised in their use, because as was indicated, a clever pun, or a simple remark may get in vogue, and cause major changes in the landscape of trends and language in the future.


[1] From the bluntly named ‘Dictionary.com’

[2] A thousand word piece can hardly be called a dissertation now, can it?

[3] Id est myself. Referring to oneself in third person is so narcissistic, isn’t it?

[5] The Bandwagon Effect is a form of groupthink which states that the more the number of people having adopted a concept, the greater the proportion of people tending to adopt the concept id est ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ syndrome.

[6] (and suffocatingly obnoxious and bootlicking)

[7] From ‘during’ onward, I lifted the whole thing from Wikipedia. It’s so succinctly put.

[8] There are two such niches – ‘nerd’ which is hardcore role-playing such as dungarees and polka dots, and ‘hipster’, which is much more mellow and makes nerd look cool.

[9] Often abbreviated to the slang “Sup?”

[10] As per Wikipedia, around 1637.

[11] Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender – This term was coined later. At the time, more offensive terms may have been in use, such as the still prevalent ‘queer’.

[12] “Everyone that you hate is fake, gay or a fag” (abbreviation of the already distasteful ‘faggot’) – Ray William Johnson, Internet comedian and musician.

Thank you for taking the time out of your schedules to read my work. Please feel free to comment, criticize, suggest and appreciate. :)

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  • Bookmarked. Gonna read it once I get some time! 🙂

    • peteykun

      Just found this on my facebook chat logs, gonna do the same.
      /bump

  • There are times when I think “Damn, I should have studied English”. This is definitely NOT one of those moments :p