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Connotation | Reading

Words have connotations, which are the feelings, opinions, or implications that they call to mind beyond their literal definitions. Connotations can affect the tone, theme, and style of a text, and can vary depending on context, culture, and personal experience. Created by David Rheinstrom.

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Video transcript

- [David] Hello, readers. Today, let's talk about feelings. Specifically, the way the words make us feel. That's right, I'm talking about connotation. The way the word feels, the context around it. Imagine a rock in a stream. Well, connotation is the way that culture flows around the word. This is distinct from denotation, which is more like the dictionary definition of a word. Companion and buddy both have similar denotations. They both mean friend, but companion is a much more formal sounding word than buddy. Which originated as a piece of slang from the 19th century. So even though their denotation or their literal definition is the same, they feel different. The connotation of companion is formal while the connotation of buddy is friendly and casual. Good readers pay close attention to the words the author chose to use. They picked those words for a reason. How do those words make you feel? What is the author trying to imply? How do the words propel the overall tone or theme of the text? So connotation is about word choice, sure. But it's also abut setting a tone. One way you set tone is by expressing an opinion. So some words may have a similar denotation but very different connotations. For example, let's say I was describing someone whose behavior was nice, like they were behaving in a kindly way. The way I described that person can express how I, as a writer, feel about that behavior. If I trust the person, I could describe them as sweet as sugar. "Oh, Jake's such a sweet guy." "Love that Jakey boy!" But if I didn't trust that person, like if I thought that this hypothetical Jake's show of kindness was fake, I could say that he was cloying or syrupy. And those words also means sweet, but they have a connotation of too much. Cloying means too sweet. So you can sort these words in the positive and negative connotations. Sweet is positive, cloying is negative. Some words will have neutral or uncertain connotations and that's okay, too. But it doesn't just have to be straightforwardly positive, negative or neutral either. You can just use connotation for the sake of poetic license or building a motif. Let's say I was writing a story about someone who started a plant nursery, and I wanted to use words that described growth. But I also wanted to build in connotations about nature or plants throughout the piece. And in this example I'm a news paper reporter and I'm doing a profile of someone in my town, let's call her Genevieve. Genevieve Jenkins, proprietor of Jenkins Orchard Supply. She's ready for the outdoors, she's got her big sun hat, she's got her hoop earrings, she's got her little name tag, she's got a little plant necklace. She seems like a nice person. Okay, I could say, "Jenkins Orchard Supply was a great "success in its new location." But if I wanted to put in a little bit of that nature note, I'd say, "Jenkins Orchard Supply flourished in its new location." Because flourished is related to the word flower. To flourish is to grow. Grow and flourish have a similar denotation, but they have different connotations. Grow can refer to plants, but it can refer to anything that increases in size. A little sponge toy can grow when you place it in the cup of water, but it won't flourish. Flourishing has a connotation of flowering and success. Continuing this idea, I could talk about how Ms. Jenkins decided to settle on the location of her plant nursery. And rather than say that she settled into the neighborhood, I could say instead that she put down roots there. Now, these are kind of extreme examples. These nature words and expressions are kinda getting close to jokes or puns, but I'm trying to be extra obvious here about the plant thing so that you can learn to detect more subtle connotations in the future. And connotation can be so personal, too. There may be words that have important emotional resonance for one person that are basically meaningless to anybody else. When I was a kid, I cycled through pretty much every much team sport: Baseball, soccer, basketball. I wasn't good at any of them, but I was especially terrible at basketball and I remember very particularly the way that coaches would call out, "Good hustle, David, good hustle!" Because that was the only thing that I could do especially well. I couldn't dribble, I definitely couldn't shoot. And my passing game was not great. So even now, I associate the phrase, "Good hustle," with you're not especially good at basketball. Which is a shame because I'm tall now. My experience is specific to me, it's not universal. It's very unlikely that you share that same connotation with the word hustle. A fun game to play is to come up with a word and then list all the synonyms for that word you can imagine, and then sort them by connotation. If you are like me, the kind of person who enjoys sorting jelly beans by color, you will get a similar amount of satisfaction from that exercise. So look out for connotations as you read, as you write. Words carry their dictionary meanings, but they also carry other cultural meanings as well. And that's connotation. You can learn anything, David out.