The relationship between words and meanings is extremely
complicated, and belongs to the field of semantics. For now, though, what you need to know is
that words do not have single, simple meanings. Traditionally,
grammarians have referred to the meanings of words in two parts:
- a literal meaning of the word
- an association (emotional or otherwise) which the word
For example, both "woman" and "chick" have the
denotation "adult female" in North American society,
but "chick" has somewhat negative connotations,
while "woman" is neutral.
For another example of connotations, consider the
All three of these expressions refer to exactly the same people,
but they will invoke different associations in the reader's mind: a
"vagrant" is a public nuisance while a "homeless" person is
a worthy object of pity and charity. Presumably, someone writing an
editorial in support of a new shelter would use the positive form,
while someone writing an editorial in support of anti-loitering laws
would use the negative form.
- There are over 2,000 vagrants
in the city.
- There are over 2,000 people with no
fixed address in the city.
- There are over 2,000 homeless
in the city.
In this case, the dry legal expression "with no fixed address"
quite deliberately avoids most of the positive or negative
associations of the other two terms -- a legal specialist will
try to avoid connotative language altogether when writing legislation,
often resorting to archaic Latin or French terms which are not a part
of ordinary spoken English, and thus, relatively free of strong
Many of the most obvious changes in the English language over the
past few decades have had to do with the connotations of
words which refer to groups of people. Since the 1950's, words like
"Negro" and "crippled" have acquired strong negative
connotations, and have been replaced either by words with
neutral connotations (ie "black,"
"handicapped") or by words with deliberately positive
connotations (ie "African-Canadian,"