The Complexity and Power of Words

The interesting thing about words is that they have different meanings to different people, even when using the same language, due to the way we process, filter and finally understand information. What does a word mean to you? Does it mean the exact same thing to every member of your family, community, country or language group? You see, words actually have two meanings: denotation and connotation. Denotation is the literal meaning or dictionary meaning of a word. Connotation is the emotional impact a word may have on you. We will talk about denotation first.

If a person does not know what a word means, they can ask a trusted source or simply look it up online or in a resource book, like a standard dictionary. It is very difficult to argue against the denotation of a word, as the meaning is supposed to be standard. Having said that, we must be aware of cultural differences and idiomatic use of words, depending on the region where the word is used. In other words, Spanish is different in the many Spanish-speaking countries, just as English is different in the English-speaking countries, and so goes the rule for many other languages as well. Denotation just got more complicated! Have no fear, because a good dictionary will indicate the many uses of a single word, and often tell you if it is a regional expression or interpretation. For example, the word ‘lift’ in British English is used as a noun where North Americans would say ‘elevator’, but at the same time, both British and North American English speakers use the verb form of the word lift in the same way: to raise up something, perhaps carry. As most of you know, there are many differences between British and N. American English, and it can be fun and practical to learn them.

Now that we have sorted out denotation, let’s talk about connotation. As stated previously, this is the emotional impact a word has on you. It can be positive, negative or neutral. Here is an example: In British English the word ‘scheme’ is typically neutral, and is used like we North Americans use the word ‘plan’. For example, British Airways has a “Frequent Flights Scheme”. But in North American English, the word ‘scheme’ typically has a negative connotation to it, and is often used to talk about 'evil plans' of villains or the ideas of a bank robber or other criminal, etc. That is why we would use a different phrase, like “Air Miles Reward Plan” instead.

Finally, the connotation of a word can be very personal, not just cultural. For example, in my mind, the word ‘puppy’ is positive, the word ‘death’ is negative and the word ‘pen’ is neutral. Those emotional feelings are based on my childhood, my culture, my language, my life experience up to this point, and other parts of knowledge I may have about those words. However, another person may feel that ‘puppy’ is a negative word, if they feel puppies are dirty, destructive and always biting people, or simply neutral if they do not care for dogs or pets in general. A person may feel that ‘death’ is a positive word if they are ready to die and are looking forward to the afterlife. Another person may feel neutral about the word death, as it is just part of the life cycle. And finally, the word pen which is neutral to me could be positively charged to someone who loves writing poetry or an author who earns money by writing, or it could be negatively charged by someone who was once stabbed with a pen.

Words are complex and powerful, and carry different meanings and feelings to different people. Choose your words carefully and consider how they may be interpreted differently to others. Don't be surprised if they have a different feeling associated with some key words in your email, presentation or memo. Don't be surprised or upset if you are asked to clarify your meaning sometimes.


Canada's 1st Communication Coach - TEDx Speaker - 3V COMMUNICATIONS Founder/ Coach/Trainer - YEDI Program Advisor/Instructor - NCCA Founder/Executive Director - BJJ blue belt - Trekkie forever! 
I've been blogging about interpersonal and business communication skills, public speaking, body language, ESL issues etc. since 2006.  Here's my popular blog, and my recent TEDx Talk "The Long Life of First Impressions."

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