Words only hold meaning in context. Speak any word in a place where no one else understands that language and it holds no meaning. That is true for the denotation (a word’s literal or most common meaning) as well as for connotation (whatever else it signifies along with its denotation). English is such a rich language that the sheer mountain of synonyms can seem overwhelming—but it’s just this choice that allows for shades of meaning because while the denotations might be similar, the connotations can differ vastly.
As writers or speakers—or even during every day communication with a colleague, friend or debate partner—we are responsible for how we get across what we mean to say. Careful word choice can keep us from accidentally imparting unintended meaning. By knowing the context into which we are speaking or writing, we can adjust the connotation of our words so that they best convey what we mean to say.
I’ve written elsewhere on how this is true for swearing (On Swearing). Words come loaded with meaning and they can mean different things depending on who is listening. If I say ‘football’ in the US, the listeners imagine a very different sport from when I say ‘football’ anywhere else on the planet. When speaking to people from the US, I use ‘soccer’ because otherwise my meaning does not carry.
More than that, words carry historical meanings. Often, when reading a text from an earlier time period, the specific choice of words can be jarring as we must learn what they mean in context (not just the context of the sentence or the work, but the society into which it was written). Sometimes, a fringe meaning can become the primary denotation of a word over time; ‘gay’ once primarily mean happy and carefree though is now used primarily to describe sexual orientation. ‘Awful’ meant primarily ‘worthy of awe’, similar to ‘awesome’ but now means something closer to ‘unpleasant’ or ‘terrible’–and the root of ‘terrible’ and ‘terrific’ are both ‘terror’.
Words, in both their primary meanings and connotations change over time. And they change within their contexts. This is a good thing as it allows for the flexibility of language and gives us better ways to express what we need to. English teachers are sometimes cast as a fixed and unchangeable bunch who insist on the immutability of language. I’m sure those exist, but I know far more English teachers that understand and value the changing nature of the language.
In this way, language always has more than one layer, whether it is intended or not. Whether a person chooses their words carefully or not, their hearers and readers will understand the connotational layer. It is the speakers job to choose those words as carefully as possible to suit the context. However, when we read or listen to a work from another time period or culture, it is our job to match our understanding to the intended context. Any biblical scholar will emphasize that pinning doctrine onto a single word or phrase after it has been translated out of the original language or context can result in massive theological misunderstandings. No, it is in the original language, speaking into a specific context, that the words must be understood to retain their intended meaning.
For this reason, poetry is so hard to translate into other languages. Perhaps more than other writers, poets understand and intentionally use the connotations (and sounds) of language to engage in meaning-making. The differences between ‘quiet’ and ‘silence’ are subtle; the first is peaceful, the other far more unsettling. ‘Carefree’ is far more relaxed while ‘lackadaisical’ implies a careless laziness. ‘Interesting’ is far more likely to be used sarcastically than ‘intriguing’ while ‘unique’ is more positive than ‘different’.
It is through precise word choice that writers and speakers create layers of meaning. Even the seemingly simple and surface-level texts carry connotational meaning. So let us with precision choose our words with care. Simultaneously, let us hear with humility the words alongside the context into which they were spoken.