Connotation: Writing between the lines

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.

Internal Dialogue

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?

Comments

  1. says

    The history of words is so interesting! I love when kids ask me, “Who made up that word?” and I have to go look up its origin. Then we have really great converstaions about langauge. What a fun post!
    Emma Burcart recently posted…Going With the Flow

    • says

      I love studying Old English – I find it quite fascinating. I have a WIP in a drawer where I have one set of characters speaking in Old English. Should maybe pull that out again.

  2. says

    I took four years of Latin in high school, and my oldest brother was taking Greek in college at the same time. I was already fascinated with word origins, but after that, even more so.

    Your naked/nude example is a great one.
    Amber recently posted…Tell Me a Story – Part III

    • says

      Yes, it worked well in that story. Emma’s made me want to pull out Aralyn’s story again. Still haven’t figured out how it should end…

  3. says

    I think a thesaurus is a potentially dangerous place to be and it’s great that you mentioned it. Although I search for synonyms, most often it’s the phrasing that has to change. Connotation leads to subtext, and subtext is part of characterization and foreshadowing (among other things); and all of this leads to theme.

    Chances are your reader can’t articulate it, but they would know when something feels off.

    Good post, it really got me thinking
    Mark Landen recently posted…What’s Maslow Got to Do with It?

    • says

      Very true. The Thesaurus can be a dangerous tool lol. As a reader, I pick up a on a lot of subtle little cues about characters that add depth to a story.

  4. says

    Great topic Lisa. I think I choose words based on connotation, but I’m not sure I know HOW I do it. :) Sometimes I will Google a sentence to see if I can find how someone else used it, but mostly I think it’s probably based on my own personal filter.
    Coleen Patrick recently posted…YA Reality: Interview with a Teen Reader

    • says

      For those whose first language is English and read a lot, that may work fine. Sometimes I get stumped though and have to dig a little deeper.

  5. says

    I really like this post. I’ve always loved words, their meanings, hidden meanings. Years ago I read a thick tome called The History of The English Language. Loved it (Does this tell you I might be a word nerd?) I agree; your nude/naked example is great. Has power.
    Diana recently posted…Beauty of the Cross?

  6. says

    Great post. It is nice to have this pointed out. I often use a thesaurus when I know the word that pops to mind doesn’t have the connotation that I want, but I never thought to look up its etymology once I think I have found the one I want. The more practice I get writing, the more I see how the perfect word can do so much work.

    • says

      Glad you found it helpful. Sometimes when I’m stumped, I’ll just leave a comment for myself to go back to it. The perfect word will often come to me when I stop trying so hard to think of it.

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