The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Lexical layers 2: connotation

In my last post, I talked about the importance of delving beyond the surface meaning of new vocabulary to try and help learners understand where and when it's appropriate to use a particular word or phrase. I looked at the concepts of register and genre, and how certain words are more typical of particular contexts and stand out as odd (or 'marked') when they're used elsewhere.

A couple of the comments on that post questioned how teachers can find time to cover all this extra information when there's already so much else to fit in. To which my first reaction is perhaps that quality is as important as quantity – there's no point memorizing a whole load of words if you don't know how to use them appropriately! But also, I realized that it's easy when you focus on a specific aspect of learning for it to get blown out of proportion. While I'm saying that understanding beyond the surface of meaning of vocab is really important, I'm not saying that learners and teachers need to go into all this detail with all the words they come across and certainly not all at the same time. Lots of words are fairly neutral and uncontroversial, so it may only be the odd word or phrase here and there that comes with a 'health warning' and needs some extra explanation. And those layers may be peeled back gradually with repeated exposures, adding in a note about register or other kinds of usage as vocab starts to shift from learners' passive to active vocab (pointing out a new aspect of a word is a great way to make revision seem less repetitive). Nonetheless, for those words which are marked in some way, exploring those extra layers can be really key to vocab development.

In this post, the layer I want to explore is connotation or the feeling and attitude of the speaker that particular word choices convey. Take a look at these words and phrases that all refer to a person who's physically larger than normal – what images do they conjure up, who could you apply them to and how would they feel about it?
A word cloud containing the words and phrases: statuesque, well-built, fatso, overweight, big-boned, fat, plus-size, imposing, plump, flabby, obese, hench, chubby and built like a brick shithouse

Adjectives like these tend to be at the more obvious end of the connotation scale, but all kinds of words reveal something about the user and their attitude towards the person or thing they're talking about. To take an example in the news fairly recently, would you describe a person at a climate strike event like the one below as an activist, a campaigner, a protestor, a demonstrator, an agitator, a militant or maybe a troublemaker or even an uncooperative crusty*? 

Photo of a teenage girl holding a banner at a climate strike event

All these words have slightly different connotations, both in and of themselves, and also depending on who they're used by and applied to. The learner who looks up the equivalent in their L1 on Google translate and randomly picks one of the options they're offered could find themselves getting across a very different message from the one they intended. Incidentally, I looked up activist on Google translate and, ignoring the translations, it offers the English synonyms militant, zealot, protestor, radical, extremist and netroots … the last of which I'd never heard before but apparently comes from a blend of grassroots and internet to describe campaigners who communicate their message online (check out definitions here and here)  … which is a neat word, but clearly has layers of meaning (not to mention lexicogrammar) that you'd need to decode before using it.

Teachers and learners often love the idea of a thesaurus to help expand their vocabulary, but as the example above illustrates, it's a path fraught with danger. Many of the thesaurus tools available online are aimed at L1 speakers of English who are looking for inspiration. It's assumed they'll be familiar with most of the synonyms that crop up and have some idea when it's appropriate (or not) to use them. They are not designed for learners of English and even if they link through to definitions, they'll likely again be written for L1 speakers in a style that won't be of much help to the average learner. Many learner's dictionaries also have thesaurus facilities of some kind, often in the form of clickable synonyms at the bottom of an entry. These can be more helpful, in part, because they're likely to focus on more useful, high-frequency words rather than the often obscure results of L1 tools. What's really important though is that learners understand the importance of clicking through to the definitions to check how the synonym may differ in usage from their starting point. Learner's dictionaries often show connotation through labels such as disapproving or offensive or humorous. Alternatively, these restrictions may be incorporated into the definition itself, e.g. "used to describe someone you disapprove of …".  Or subtler differences may be shown through the choice of examples. I suspect, however, many learners skim over these important caveats, focusing only on the basic meaning (or denotation). Which is why work in class on noticing and understanding the significance of this kind of information is so important.

Of course, though, dictionaries and other reference sources can only give very general guidance on typical usage. People all use and understand language differently. If you're female, for example, how do you feel about people referring to you as a woman, a lady, a girl or a bird? Does it depend on who they are? Have your feelings, like mine, shifted slightly over time? Whether or not you perceive a particular word or expression as formal, informal, slang, old-fashioned, offensive, condescending, complimentary, humorous, appropriate or inappropriate will come down to your social, cultural, regional, educational and professional background, your age, your gender and potentially a whole host of other factors … which I'll talk about in my next post.  

* uncooperative crusties was an expression used by UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to describe people at a climate strike event in London in Oct 2019 (link to BBC news report here)

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