Because of a recurring communication problem I encounter, I want to draw attention to the difference between denotation and connotation. Definitions de·no·ta·tion noun \dē-nō-ˈtā-shən\ The most specific or direct meaning of a word, in contrast to its figurative or associated meanings. con·no·ta·tion noun \kä-nə-ˈtā-shən\ The set of associations implied by a word in addition to […]
Because of a recurring communication problem I encounter, I want to draw attention to the difference between denotation and connotation.
- de·no·ta·tion noun \dē-nō-ˈtā-shən\
- The most specific or direct meaning of a word, in contrast to its figurative or associated meanings.
- con·no·ta·tion noun \kä-nə-ˈtā-shən\
- The set of associations implied by a word in addition to its literal meaning.
When attempting to articulate an idea, carry on a conversation, or express a nuanced thought, I often find others mistaking the meanings of the words that I use. Sometimes the listener becomes upset, indignant or angry for what they believe they have just heard me say. In response, I often become frustrated because the words I used to express myself were carefully chosen based on their definitions or denotations, yet the listener has heard me say something else (sometimes something completely antithetical to my intent) because of unknown associations or connotations they have attached to those words.
Let’s say I’m speaking with nice fellow who loves his connotations and I use the words ‘completely ignorant’ to describe myself in regards to something like… carburetor intake valves. This might elicit a sour face from the listener and a comment like, “You’re not dumb! Don’t be so hard on yourself.” I then have to spend the next ten minutes, trying to use only words with no more than five letters in them, explaining how, though I may not be an idiot, indeed, I am completely ignorant about carburetors and wouldn’t know one if I saw one. Unfortunately, the listener has made two errors.
- He thought that I was beating myself up because he misunderstood my use of the word ‘ignorant,’ meaning ‘unknowledgeable or uneducated.’
- He then responded by misusing the word ‘dumb,’ meaning ‘lacking the ability to speak’ when what he really meant was something like ‘stupid’ or ‘foolish.’
Use Your Words
This form of miscommunication is very common. It happens with all sorts of words, for all sorts of reasons. I have witnessed breakdowns of this nature so many times, that I am beginning to believe it is one of our fundamental human struggles. Misuse and misunderstanding of the denotation of words is often the primary cause of our frustrations with others and ourselves. At the heart of understanding each other is the necessity for all of us to use proper words that mean what we intend to express ourselves and similarly for all of us to understand the words that others use to express themselves. In short, we should say what we mean, mean what we say, and hope for others to do the same. Though we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t.
When you get a chance, pick up a dictionary and peruse through the thousands of words it contains. You might be thinking, “Who does that?” Right. Well, I do and have done so ever since I can I remember. I also obsessively read the encyclopedia (an addiction now fed by Wikipedia) and can recite all sorts of facts that probably aren’t useful on a practical level. So, I may sound like a geek (I’ll own that), but we have a rich linguistic history full of words developed by our ancestors that they have passed on to us. We now have the chance to use these powerful tools to communicate with each other and future generations.
Isn’t that exciting?! Go ahead and roll your eyes, then let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments. Do you have a good anecdote involving miscommunication and word meanings? Please share so we all can enjoy an lol together. Remember: No grunting! Use your words.
How about Led Zeppelin performing “Communication Breakdown” live in 1970 for your viewing and listening pleasure?