I’m obsessed with words and meanings. I’m a reader. I’m a writer. I’m an English teacher. Words and meanings are my currency. But words and meanings are slippery buggers too.
There’s the denotation of a word – its dictionary definition. Except that any dictionary worth its salt will likely offer a few definitions, not all of which are connected to one another. Then there are words that can be used as different parts of speech, so the denotation depends on the context in which the word was used. Speaker and audience also have to know what all the words in the denotation mean.
Then there’s the connotation of a word – the things different people associate with the word without those associations having to do with the word at all. Some connotations are so widely known that they actually become part of a word’s denotation. But because connotations deal with personal associations, it’s often difficult to know what baggage people are bringing to any given word. Generally, connotations can be sorted into positive or negative.
When teaching the difference between denotation and connotation, I like to use the word “father” as an example. The denotation is male parent; the connotation depends entirely on your relationship with your male parent and whether or not you call him father, dad, daddy, pop, pa, old man etc. We then recognize that certain contexts call for different words that mean the same thing. If you’re trying to butter up your daddio to give you some cash, you might not call him father; you’d use a perhaps more endearing, less severe word. But maybe father connotes an endearment to you and you bristle when I say it’s in any way severe.
That’s what I mean when I say the shades of the word. The light, shadow, color, temperature any given word takes on in a particular context are its shades. And there’s not always an accurate accounting of how others have shaded their words, so meanings often go missed or mixed or lost or assumed.
Love: The English language really fucked this one up when it simplified what the Greeks laid out for us. Philia, eros, platonic, agape… way clearer than a catch all. Thanks, English :::grumble, fist shake:::
Pure: some people think of pure as an alternative to saying virginal or unsoiled or clean. I understand that in some contexts, but where my own writing is concerned, a lean toward a more scientific shade of the word. When I use pure to describe my writing (or what I want my writing to be) I mean “in its most potent form” or undiluted. A while ago when I revisited some of the stuff I wrote in Ireland last summer, I said one piece was approaching pure. It had potential to be one of the purest things I’ve ever written. In that case, I meant undiluted, in its most potent form.
Matter: this word can be used as a noun – what’s the matter? Here it means “problem” usually. Mind over matter. Here it can mean problem, but might mean circumstance, which has less of a negative connotation. It can also be used as a verb – You don’t matter. I guess here it means count, belong, have a say in. This one fascinates me because the word sounds so stupid. Some words don’t start to sound stupid until you repeat them a lot, but matter sounds stupid right away.
Fancy: Major bang for your buck because fancy can be used as a noun, a verb, and an adjective. Noun – flight of fancy, meaning some kind of creativity or imagination. Verb – what do you fancy? meaning what do you like (also you fancy him! similar meaning). Adjective – well, it gets even trickier here because one person’s connotation of fancy as an adjective could be very different from another’s. And then there’s “Fancy Dress” in British terms, which might mean you’re going to a costume party even if the costume is decidedly casual.
All of this seemed very important last night when I wasn’t sleeping, though it’s a simple point I’m making: sometimes we have no idea what the fuck another person is talking about because, while we use the same words, we don’t have the same meanings. Whether it’s denotations that include other words we don’t know, connotations that are different from our own or completely unknown even to the speaker’s conscious mind, or all the shades a word’s speaker and audience give it, we are talking past each other if we don’t stop to nail down what someone means by the words s/he uses.
And that’s the difficulty of communication and relating to others.