A professional writer must be a lover of words. It is the basis of their craft. We know about the definition of words, what words mean. Today, I want to talk about connotations of words.
Connotations Speaking to Connotations
John Ciardi and Miller Williams in How Does a Poem Mean? (Out of print; look for it at places like abebooks.com), talk about connotations speaking to connotations. If a story is a context for making choices, then part of the word choices is connotations. Example: fire, inferno, blaze?these all mean roughly the same thing, but within the context of a story, one may make more sense than another. What are some of the factors that determine which is best?
- Word Derivations. Fire comes from the Old English (before 900), fyr. Inferno comes Italian/Latin (1825-35) meaning hell and implies a furnace or oven. Blaze comes from Old English (before 1000) meaning a torch or flame. Do you want a Latin based word or the Anglo-saxon based words? Which derivation comes closer to what you want?
- Syllables. Fire and blaze only have one syllable. Inferno has three. Which better fits the rhythm of the voice you?ve set up?
- Sound. Fire begins with a harsh sound, but tapers off with the r sound. Blaze has strong sounds at the beginning (bl) and ending (z). Inferno is smoother at the beginning and end, but has the harsher f sound in the middle. What are the connotations of each of these? For example, depending on the needs of your story?inferno seems to go on and on, while fire seems more finite.
The Wonderful World of Words
Marsteller, Inc. an advertising company, wrote the following fascinating piece on connotations. Because it’s copyrighted, I’m only posting an excerpt. This should make you think about the use of words in different ways.
“There are tall, skinny words, and short, fat ones, and strong ones and weak ones, and boy words and girl words. For instance, title, lattice, latitude, lily, tattle, Illinois, and intellect are all lean and lanky. While these words get their height partly out of t’s, and l’s and I’s, other words are tall and skinny without a lot of ascenders and descenders. Take, for example, Abraham, peninsula and ellipsis, all tall. Here are some nice short-fat words: hog, yogurt, bomb, pot, bon-bon, acne, plump, sop and slobber.”
The advertising company is talking about connotations of words.
Abraham, because of Abraham Lincoln, has the connotation of tall. Words pick up connotations from the way it looks, sounds, derivations, culture, experiences, and more. “The Wonderful World of Words” talks about words in terms of gender, age, strength, color (San Francisco is a red city; Cleveland is beige, Asheville is green and Buffalo is black.), shape, speed (Raid, rocket, piccolo, hound, bee and rob are fast words. Guard, drizzle, lard, cow, sloth, much and damp are slow words.) and more.
It can be confusing to think about words in terms of height and speed, for example. But this is connotation at work within a story.
As an exercise, I have groups of writers choose a topic, for example, famous actresses. Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Dame Judy Dench Then, choose several categories of things that they’ll use to describe the women, thinking about the connotations of the descriptive words.
For example, the categories might be cookies, trees and cars. If you think about the connotations–what kind of cookie describes each actress? Remember that you are thinking about connotations (gender, age, strength, color, shape, speed, how the words sound, how the words look, how many syllables are in each word, etc.) Depending on your experience, this might seem a profound or a silly exercise. But it’s one that points the direction toward thinking about words more carefully, based on their connotations. Voice comes when you use the right choice of words within the context of a story. How would you fill in the table to describe each actress? Share your answers to the comments below, so we can see what others think!
cookie tree car Halle Berry Julia Roberts Judi Dench