Thursday, May 18, 2006

May 18: Denotations and Connotations Day

Today is the birthday of philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell who was born in Wales in 1872. Russell received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.

Russell’s writings are eminently quotable. Here are a few examples that demonstrate his genius for language that is both concise and profound:

The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.

Many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.

One particular quote by Russell has helped a generation of English teachers to illustrate the subtleties of denotation and connotation in the English language. On a BBC radio program called Brain Trust, Russell said the following:

I am firm.
You are obstinate.
He is a pig-headed fool.

With this one quote, Russell demonstrated how a writer’s word choice is colored by his or her point of view and how the plethora of synonyms in English is a double-edged sword: it allows for an amazing array of possibilities, choices, and variety, but it also requires the writer to be a discriminating student of not just a word’s meaning, but also its associations and appropriate context.

A denotation of a word is its dictionary definition, but its connotation is its implied meaning – the associations and emotions that are attached to the word. For example, when addressing 15-year old, you have a choice of addressing him as a: young adult, a young person, an adolescent, a teenager, a teen, a teeny-bopper, a juvenile, or even a whipper-snapper. Although each of these words has the same basic denotation, they certainly have a range of different connotations on a scale of positive to neutral to negative.

Writing Russellesque triads is an excellent way to exercise your verbal muscles and learn to discriminate between the subtle differences in the connotations of various synonyms. For example, there is a classic example of a student who was looking for a synonym for “good.” He picked up a thesaurus and looked down the list of synonyms. Making a selection of what he thought was an appropriate synonym, the student wrote the following sentence: “Today I ate a benevolent donut.”

Here are some examples of triads written by Word Daze’s resident wordsmith Edward Oz:

I am a learned scholar.
You are an educated instructor.
He is a didactic pedagogue.

I’m a patriot.
You are a flag waver.
He is jingoistic.

My smoking is a vice.
Your smoking is a transgression.
His smoking is a sin.

My story was a fascinating narration.
Your story was an interesting anecdote.
His story was a strange yarn.

I am sagacious.
You are astute.
He is crafty.

I am a scholar.
You are a student.
He is a pupil.

I am a wordsmith.
You are a writer.
He is a hack.

I’m resting.
You’re lounging.
He’s a coach potato.

I’m frugal.
You’re cheap.
He’s a tightwad.

Today’s Challenge: Connotative Concoctions:
Celebrate Bertrand Russell’s birthday by doing your own triad of synonyms. Use the following guidelines as you write.

-Arrange your concoction in first, second, and third person points of view: I, You, and He.

-Begin in the first person with the word or phrase that has the most positive connotations. Continue by using words and/or phrases with ever-increasing negative connotations.


My bathroom has a fragrant aroma.
Your bathroom has an odd odor.
His bathroom has a strange stench.

Quote of the Day: The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. --Mark Twain

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