Part 1: Connotation or Denotation? (It’s All Semantics to Me)

Note: This is part one of three. Read Part Two: Connotation or Denotation (The Tip of the Iceberg) and Part Three: Connotation or Denotation (Everything Encourages Dissociation).

Recently, my brother told me of a new radio station where he lives, which plays all ’80s music. The reaction was spectacular, and soon all of the other radio stations began playing 80s music as well. He outlined the ways in which our generation is becoming more influential. “Thanks to now having disposable income,” I added.

“Actually,” he explained, “it’s not. Did you know that disposable income refers to all of your income, excepting taxes? What most people call disposable income is really discretionary income. Discretionary income is the money you have left over after paying for your basic needs.”

But if everyone is calling discretionary income “disposable income,” and we all know what everyone means, does it matter?

The Case for Connotation

Twenty years ago, if someone saw a mouse on the desktop, they would likely scream. Today, a mouse on a desk is far more likely to be a “pointing device,” than a rodent, and my “desktop” is a large computer with a monitor. Language is alive. In fact, there is evidence that humans were speaking nearly 100,000 years ago. Since the first English language dictionary was written in roughly 1592, there were over 99,000 years when language could only mean what we understood it to mean. What a circular idea:

Language only means what we understand it to mean.

If we accept that, then every usage of a word must be judged not by its similarity to the dictionary definition, but by its ability to be comprehended. And, indeed, this is how we came to have words such as “bunk,”  “thingamabob,” and “whatzit,” all of which were once mere jibberjabber. Shakespeare was the first to coin terms such as “dwindle,” “arouse,” and “gloomy,” and so these were all nonsense a few hundred years ago. More recently, believe it or not, the OED added the words “twerk,” “derp,” and “selfie” to our official lexicon. So even the OED, the ultimate guide to “real” words, grows and changes to fit the connotations of the times.

Comic by Zach Weiner, of SMBC Comics.
Comic by Zach Weiner, of SMBC Comics.

Then it’s settled! Giants will none graman connotations.

Connotation or Denotation?

If you struggled to understand my sentence “Giants will none graman pieces,” it might be because my language was evolving into new connotations. I decided that “giants” will now refer to large groups of people, “none” is synonymous with “all,” and “graman” – a word I just invented – means “use.” I said “People around the world will all use connotations.” Isn’t that clear?

Obviously, if we ignore word denotations, nothing can be “clear” or understood. The argument for the importance of denotation is ludicrous! Denotations are so obviously necessary that there is no argument at all. It’s like arguing the importance of keeping hydrogen atoms in water. Of course it’s necessary, and unless we purposely change something, it’s there to stay.

A denotation, at its core, is the “official” and most identifiable connotation of a word at any given time. We think of connotations as ever-shifting and denotations as stalwart, and yet The Monitor recently identified a few words whose denotations along with their connotations have shifted over time:


The word nice means something pleasant and agreeable but in the 13th century it meant that you were stupid and foolish.

Between that century and the 18th, it went through meaning extravagant, elegant, strange, modest, thin and shy. Another word whose original meaning had less flattering connotations is pretty, which meant a crafty person, then it became clever, since crafty people tend to be clever, then it became fine and now means beautiful.

The word buxom conjures the image of a large breasted woman since that is what the word means. However, the word originally meant obedient, later changed to compliant, then lively since most compliant women were always willing to entertain their men’s guests, serving drinks and what not. Soon, the word meant plump since most lively women were plump, later evolving to large-breasted.”

I love language. I love that it’s alive and shifting. Still, I flinch when I hear “real” used as an adverb (“I’m real happy!”) and I believe the alot is better than you. Is it hypocritical then, that I enjoy “Googling” instead of searching, and I think educational games should be “more funner?”
Only time will tell.

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