Luke’s Languages #5: Connote and Denote


So what do words mean and how is it we all tacitly agree? You say, “Go look in a dictionary, stupid.” But I mean—ah, there’s that word again—how do we choose the right word?

Well, rule one of pragmatics (the study of language in conversations and in context) is that no choice is random or unmotivated. In amateur writing classes they tell you that you should know a lot of synonyms, but a good writer knows there are no synonyms, because two words never mean exactly the same thing.

Haters gonna hate, so some sceptic is already saying, “Oh, yeah? So what’s the difference between ‘before’ and ‘prior to’?” And it’s true—they both mean “earlier in time than”. But let me ask you a question. Talking with your friends, how often do you say “prior to” instead of “before”? Now, what about when writing an essay? Aha!

There is some difference. This difference is usually put down to “connotation”, the study of what words mean besides the dictionary definition. It’s less scientific and more intuitive. Consider the following continuum of alleged synonyms, ordered from “normal person” to “mega-prig”: “Duh!, Obviously!, Definitely!, Clearly!, Certainly!, Evidently!, Patently!” Rather striking, is it not? (Or should I have said, “Cool, huh”?)

This kind of thing gets complicated fast. English has by far the largest vocabulary of any language, and when you have a lot of similar words they tend to develop subtle nuances, to the point of splitting hairs. C.S. Lewis wrote that if there’s anything that could make one language superior to another, it’d be its ability to make finer distinctions between concepts… but, of course, that would depend on whether the speakers even know or care about the difference!

It’s really hard to pin down exactly what makes one word different from another, what makes this one just right here and this one sound unnatural. As far as we know, much of a word’s connotation is specific to each person—your grandparents always used to use the word, or you love its unique written shape, or for years you thought it was a kind of spreadable cheese when in fact it was a famous Italian opera but now you still always think of cheese when you hear it.

These kinds of things make an idiolect (“self-language”). Tune in next time for more on how what you say is unique to you and you alone… or how your very words and thoughts have been subconsciously influenced all your life!