Connotation is a layering trick writers use to add unspoken meaning. It’s all the stuff a word says without saying it. It’s the writer’s job to be as economical as possible and make words pull double duty.
When someone drags their past into a situation we say they’ve got baggage. Every word has baggage. Every word has a past, an association, a history, and that’s brought with it into your work. Sometimes that baggage belongs to the reader – you can’t help that, sometimes it’s a historical event or etymology.
History lends connotation
If you decide to set your story in Chernobyl, that place name brings a lot of baggage with it. Lichfield, England is the home of Samuel Johnson, he wrote the first dictionary. Lich in Old English means body or corpse, so Lichfield – presumably, is built on a graveyard. That’s a bit more obscure. I was editing a translation and the writer used the term ‘concentration camp’ which I substituted for forced labor camp – because the connotation with World War 2 wasn’t intended.
Part of connotation is Etymology.
I studied Literature in school and one of my favorite electives was an Etymology class – Old English to be specific. Learning about the history behind the language has helped give me a deeper appreciation for the power of connotation.
et·y·mol·o·gy: The study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.
Anyone who’s studied Shakespeare, or read the old King James Bible knows that language changes, it evolves. We don’t speak the same way they did in 1066, and while we still use many of the same words, the meanings and usage has changed. If you look in a dictionary, it will give you the etymology of a word whether its roots are in French, Old English OE, Latin, or another language. Confused? Here’s an example:
Nude is from the Latin (1525–35) nūdus: lacking clothing or covering, color of a white-person’s flesh
Naked is Middle English from the Old English (pre 900) nacod: lacking embellishment, lacking confirmation or support, unaided by device or instrument, devoid of concealment or covering
(definitions from Merriam-Webster.com)
One word is older than the other, and both have distinct origins. This should tip you off that though they mean the same thing, the connotation (added layer of meaning) is different for each one. There’s a vulnerability to naked – as though a naked person is lacking something – is deficient in some way. Whereas nude is more refined – leads me to think of art, of shedding the burden of a covering, nude is a choice, you’re au naturel.
Could you interchange Naked Colony for Nude Colony? It’s technically the same thing – or is it? See – connotation.
In an intimate scene, a woman who sheds her clothing to stand nude before her man strikes me as natural, confident, alluring, unashamed. In that same scene, if the woman is naked there’s a raw sexuality to it, she’s lacking something she should have – clothes, she’s exposed. A nude woman gets up from the bed and walks to the bathroom unconcerned if she’s observed. A naked woman wraps the sheet around herself before walking to the bathroom.
These distinctions add layers and depth to your characters and your scenes.
While you can’t help the personal connotations a reader brings to your work, you should manipulate the connotation your characters bring to the story. If your character is a woman who was sexually abused as a child, she might not ever use the word nude, even when it’s appropriate. You can imply a character’s attitude and history by their own word choice – and I’m thinking mainly of internal dialogue here.
There’s a line from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games that made me pause (to be honest I’ve only read the first page). The main character is staring at her sister’s cat.
“Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower.”
How do you think the POV character feels about this cat? How does Prim see it? Its eyes aren’t just the color of squash, but rotting squash. Not exactly an endearing term, is it? Rotting is a word with a negative connotation.
Be aware of the negative and positive connotation
Often, we turn to the thesaurus when we’re stumped for the right word and there’s nothing wrong with that. But be aware that words often carry connotation with them, and may not be as interchangeable as you’d like to think. Collins could have chosen words with positive or even neutral connotation such as ripe squash, fresh squash, cooked squash, but no – she chose rotting squash. It’s used to good effect in this instance. We do this all the time as writers, we just need to do it consciously – purposely. Is your character thin or gaunt? Is the woman across the room seductive or flirtatious? Is your son’s friend clever or impertinent? It’s all in how you frame it.
Do you choose words based on connotation? How do you decide or discern a word’s connotation?