Part 3: Connotation or Denotation? (Familiarity Leads to Connotation)

Note: This is part one of three. Read Part One: Connotation or Denotation? (It’s All Semantics to Me) and Part Two: Connotation or Denotation (Beware Simple Stories)

I read a recent article about how to improve and automate user testing. It was an interesting and well-written article, but it also managed to hit upon a pet peeve of mine. What bothered me was the “problem” they called out with the term “test automation”:

“…the term “test automation” threatens to dissociate people from their work”

I’m sick of people pointing out the problems with specific terms. I’m sick of doing it myself! I’ve mused over the value of connotative and denotative definitions and the problems that occur when we assume a simple story has no depth. What about when we assume everything breeds dissociation?

Familiarity Breeds Dissociation

There are two reasons to point out a “problem” with a phrase.

  1. The phrase refers to something different from what it’s now intended to mean. For example, we might point out that the term “testing” has always referred to QA, but now sometimes refers to usability testing. These are two different things, and the word is problematic because it isn’t specific and can be misunderstood.
  2. The phrase is no longer as impactful as it once was.

#2 is the reason “the term test automation threatens to dissociate people from their work.” Any familiar word gets unheard once it’s familiar. We skim over it. It’s less impactful. It no longer has the connotation of “something new and exciting that must be paid attention!” As a result, it no longer has the depth it once had; it has been simplified to a simple story.

Familiarity Leads to Connotation

The more comfortable people become with a word, the more likely they are to use it. It may become popularized through a commercial or a book or a meme. Eventually more and more people use it in specific references, and perhaps lose the thread of the original strict denotation.

The more familiar people become with the term, the more likely it is to be (1) misused, or (2) not really understood. That means all words slowly stop having the impact they once had. Perhaps it’s because the word no longer means the same thing. Perhaps it’s due to overuse. It’s certainly not the fault of the word.

Today’s Homework

Today, let’s process the words we read or hear. Let’s look for the connotations, the deeper stories. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt, and assume we all have more commonalities than differences.

It might bring about world peace. It will definitely stop us from wasting time looking for nonexistent problems.

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