In recent times, I’ve become more and more convinced that the way people use language is complicated and some times confounded by the definitions of the words we use. This seems to be especially relevant when the matters being discussed are topical, contentious, highly contextual or related to deeply-felt sentiments. As a result, it seems useful to explore the ways that we assign meaning to words.
In particular, I want to explore word meaning as differentiated by any given word’s denotations and its connotations. I should be clear, as with everything else in Zensylvania, that I do not claim to be expert in linguistics, semantics or anything else. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think my observations may be useful in navigating the ever-shifting world of communicating with others.
So here’s the Zensylvania Theory of Word Meaning: for every person, every word carries a combined weight of particular individual and general collective meanings composed of various denotative and connotative factors. A denotative factor is the real-world thing which a word is intended to refer to. For example, the word “motorcycle” denotes any real-world, physical artifact that is a motorized vehicle with two or three wheels; similarly, the word ‘human’ denotes any real-world animal of the species homo sapiens sapiens. The denotative factors of words are usually reasonably straight-forward. But not always.
Sometimes a word denotes more than one real-world physical thing. For example, the word ‘bat’ can denote a carved wooden or metal stick used in certain ball games or it can denote a class of featherless flying mammal. In most cases, the denoted real world thing is established by the context of usage. When Thomas Nagel wrote a paper to explore consciousness titled, “What is it like to be a bat?” in a 1974 edition of the Philosophical Review, it is reasonably certain that most people assumed Nagel was referring to the mammal and not a three-foot long club.
Of course the situation of multiple possible denotations that I’m referring to is still within the same language and does not (directly) consider situations where the same collection of phonemes could be used for different denotations in other languages. As most of us know, this multiple denotation situation is referred to as a ‘homonym’.
It is also possible for a real-world thing to have multiple denotative words. A ‘car’ may also be denoted by the words: ‘automobile’, ‘vehicle’, ‘sedan’, ‘convertible’ and a long list of other possible denotative words. We can use different words to refer to the same real-world object and most of our fellow language users will take the denotative meaning.
In most cases, a word’s denotation is not an area of trouble. At this time, there are very few real-world things that can’t be denoted with a particular word…and any new thing that may be created is given a word so that it can be denoted.
Exceptions to Denotation
When a word’s denotation is significantly altered from common usage, this can be a source of considerable upset among those who wish to communicate with any degree of clarity or specificity.
Sticking to our automotive theme, let us say that the word ‘coupé’, in common usage, denotes a motor-vehicle with a permanently-installed roof, two doors and (usually) four wheels. As a denotative meaning, particular information is communicated. We can know what a coupé “is”. For the vast majority of the past hundred years (and more if one considers carriage-making), referring to a coupé was instantly recognized as some variation of a two-door.
In recent years, however, the term ‘gran coupé‘ has been used as a denotative term for a (very few) four-door, sporty cars that are rather enlarged compared to a typical sedan. It is a sedan with the proportions of an SUV, but without the station-wagon styled cargo area.
Currently this denotative terminology seems to be limited to a few specific German-branded vehicles. Suddenly, the meaning of the word ‘coupé‘ no longer features the specification of two-doors as a factor. The denotation has been changed.
The shift in denotation is achieved by adding the term “gran“. In automotive culture, ‘gran’ is a a kind of reduction of ‘grand’ from the term ‘grand tourer‘. Or perhaps from the Italian, Gran Turismo. The earliest GT was the 1930 Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 Gran Turismo (according to MotorTrend). Grand touring cars (GT’s) are intended for long-distance, high speed driving. Luxurious sportiness.
So adding ‘gran‘ to ‘coupé‘ results in denotation of a luxurious sporty sedan by leveraging the luxurious sportiness of GT and coupé cars. In effect, the term ‘gran coupé‘ uses or leverages the connotative meanings of these other denotative terms (sportiness, luxury) to designate a new denotative meaning.
This highly un-important matter of what word or words one uses to denote a motorized vehicle is useful for observing how a word’s denotation can be shifted. Suddenly a ‘coupé‘ is no longer solely two-door vehicle. It can also be a four-door vehicle by adding ‘gran’. a defining factor is no longer the quantity of doors but the combination of luxury, comfort and sportiness.
How much more confusing and contentious the situation might be when these shifts in meaning are applied to more topical, contentious, highly contextual or related to deeply-felt sentiments. Thomas Nagel might ask what it’s like to be a bat.
And this brings us nicely to connotative factors in the meaning of words.
Connotative factors of a word’s meaning are both individual (and therefore private or intimate) and collective (and therefore public or prevalent). They are the collections of impressions and associations that give a word a special usage or character in our minds. They are the meanings that are very nearly un-spoken except for the coding of the connotative factors.
When some auto-industry executives authorized the use of the term gran coupé to denote a sporty, 4-door, SUV-sized sedan, they intended to use the connotative weight of the words gran and coupé to imply a sporty, luxurious, long-distance touring capable vehicle with a focus on the driver and passenger. These are public/prevalent connotative meanings being used.
The auto-executives rely-upon there also being private or intimate connotations of these words particular to each individual that will enhance these prevalent connotations. Perhaps prospective purchasers are assumed to have fond memories of GT cars that are no longer practical for their actual needs.
From the 1950s through to the early mid 1990s, a common vehicle type was the personal luxury car (or personal luxury coupe). While very similar to a GT, it was perhaps more oriented to luxury than sporting pretensions. Those were time when the standard practice for North American auto manufacturers was to product a 2-door, 4-door and station-wagon version of their main lines. The 2-door was often available with a variety of luxuries to create the “personal luxury coupe”. Over the course of the 1990s and early 200s, the manufacturers went away from this trend with fewer and fewer station-wagon or coupe versions of cars being offered.
In that time, a station-wagon connoted families, a sedan might connote a practical ab dignified choice and a coupe was oriented to the sporty and youth minded.
All this is to say that word-choice has a denotation which carries associations.
Connotations – A non-Automotive Example
Let’s step away from words in the automotive sector to instead consider some of the most pervasive and meaningful of words: our names.
For most people, we know that names have denotations. If considered further, most of us will admit that names will often carry connotations and expectations. If someone were to tell us that we’re about to meet someone we’ve never met before and the only additional information we’re given is a name, we will undoubtedly begin assembling expectations of who that person is likely to be based on the name we’re told they have.
We have slightly different expectations for who Bob, Bobby, Rob, Robbie, Robert and Roberto are; similarly, we have different expectations for who Kerrie, Karen, Karen and Katherine are.
When we say a name, it denotes a specific individual (or in some cases multiple people who happen to have the same name). But it also connotes in our minds various traits and qualities we’ve gleaned from our personal/intimate and collective/pervasive experience of the kind of person that is a Bob or a Karen.
This is a kind of bias which we develop over time and both consciously and unconsciously cultivate and reinforce over time.
Over time, a word’s connotations can overtake a word’s original denotation based on common usage. In essence, when the collective/pervasive experiences of a words connotations are so dominant, these connotations (or perhaps even a single connotation) becomes the de facto denotation as well. Consider this rather odd contrasting of associated words:
horror, horrify, horrible, horrifying, horribly, horrific
terror, terrify, terrible, terrifying, terribly, terrific
In this strange example, the various forms of the word “horror” are faithful to the original denotative meaning of the root word. However, in the case of “terror”, one form of the word has taken an opposite meaning. Clearly, some novel private/intimate connotation of the word became a public/pervasive connotation an and altered to render a different denotation.
Why Does it Matter?
As I hinted at the beginning of this essay, this matter of varying denotations and connotations seems to be deeply embedded in every bit of our communication – and insofar as our thinking is based on verbal language, also in our thinking. What we mean when we say a word is both the denoted thing and the connoted values and associations it carries.
From time to time, it may be useful to recall that a word is only a word and may, through common usage, no longer refer to the real world thing that it originally denoted. What has happened is that a word’s individual/intimate connotation(s) became a collective/pervasive denotation.
Zensylvania: It’s a state of mind.
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