by Liz Walter
It has been said that there is no such thing as a synonym in English. That’s quite an extreme view, but it’s certainly true that words that look like synonyms often have subtle differences of usage. The one I’m going to look at in this post is that of connotation, i.e. the way the words we choose can reflect our own views on the subject we are talking about.
To give a rather obvious example, most people would probably be happy to be described as slim, slender or svelte (which all describe an attractive appearance), less happy with thin or skinny (which are more neutral or could even imply unattractiveness), offended by lanky or scrawny (negative descriptions), and upset by haggard, gaunt, or emaciated (which have connotations of ill health).
Connotation makes language rich and subtle, but it can be very difficult to master in another language. A good learner’s dictionary can help by providing labels such as approving or disapproving. For instance, the word newfangled has a disapproving label in the dictionary on this site. That means that someone who chooses this adjective is being critical in a way that they would not be if they chose the word modern, which has a similar meaning but a much more positive connotation.
Similarly, the word shrewd has the label approving to show that this is a type of intelligence that the speaker feels positively about, as opposed to neutral words such as intelligent or wise or decidedly negative words such as cunning or crafty, which have connotations of dishonesty.
Dictionaries for learners also try to convey connotation in their explanations. For instance, if we look at ‘synonyms’ of unusual in this dictionary, we see that exotic means ‘unusual and exciting’, which show the positive connotation, as opposed to eccentric, which is ‘strange and unusual’ and therefore more negative.
One area of language where connotation is particularly important is idioms. In fact, we very often use idioms because we want to convey a particularly strong opinion. Idioms such as over the moon, make your hair stand on end, or pay through the nose are all emphatic. But again, we need to be careful of connotation. A good dictionary will help you to understand, for example, that describing someone as a tough cookie is positive, whereas calling them as hard as nails is not, even though the meanings are similar.
Of course, connotation is influenced by context. For example, if we describe a religious person as devout, that is usually a simple description of the strength of their faith. In contexts where speakers and listeners are religious, the word pious, which has a similar meaning, could be quite positive. However, in general use this word often has negative connotations, implying that the person is rather sanctimonious.
Connotation is an important but tricky issue, and one where English-English learner dictionaries can be very helpful, often more helpful than bilingual dictionaries where the focus may be more on equivalence of meaning rather than equivalence of connotation.