Sunday, May 16, 2010

Connotations and Denotations (poll)

Definitions are denotations.What does the word snob denote? The emotions, images, and visceral responses associated with a word are called connotations. What does snob connote?

Connotations can be positive, neutral, or negative and they are subjective, unique to the individual, even though most people would probably respond positively to fireplace and negatively to arson. English language learners in particular may struggle to grasp connotations. Consider the similar denotations but differing connotations of the words relaxed, inactive, and lazy. I’d prefer to be viewed as relaxed rather than lazy, wouldn’t you?

Now to the poll results. Of 266 voters, 200 (75%) felt that snobbish was more insulting than smug. These two negatively charged words share similar but not identical denotations. I was curious to learn if the affective associations triggered by the words varied widely. The finding was surprising—in my perceptual lens, smug is more insulting, more negative. The word reeks of superiority. I was in the minority. One can only guess at the personal experiences that triggered the varied responses but a few comments provide clues:

One blogger said, “Smug is worse because people are not snobbish about everything, only some things. If people are smug, they are always smug, because it’s in them, a part of their personality.”

An email stated, “I down-rated smug because the mind is set and arrogant whereas snobbish is because of birth, but context makes a difference.”

A college student wrote, “I would have to say I would much rather be called smug than snobbish. I just don't like the word snob, I guess.”

Another blogger said, “I think snobbish is more universally insulting because many people aren’t sure what smug means, but nobody likes a snob.” 

Do fewer people know what smug means? To investigate, I consulted The Educator’s Word Frequency Guide, a corpus created by Zeno, Ivens, Millard, and Duvvuri (1995). In the listing, the frequency of smug was greater than that of snobbish, but neither word appears frequently in English texts (0.5436 versus 0.1431 appearances per million words). Even when all forms of smug (that is, smug, smugly, smugness) were tallied against snob, snobs, snobbish, snobbishly and snobbishness, the smug family had a higher total frequency (1.0429 versus 0.6497). Thus, based on the written word, smug should be known at least as well as snobbish, but we must also consider the frequency of spoken words, and there is no data base for that to my knowledge. It is possible that we hear snob more frequently than smug.

At any rate, the implications are clear—words can trigger surprising and differing emotional responses. Students need to be aware of this. Perceptions are key to language processing. Communication (including reading comprehension) depends not only on understanding a word’s denotation but also its connotation. 

Classroom application: After the denotations of a handful of near-synonyms are learned, why not vote on their connotations with sealed ballots? Discuss the rationale behind the vote. Such discussion should prompt thinking, learning and memory. This task should be accessible to everyone as long as the denotations are known. 

These types of engaging tasks will motivate most students and may kindle interest in words and phrases, especially needful for children of poverty. Word consciousness should develop along with explicit knowledge of a word's denotations and connotations. Furthermore, writing might well improve as students become discerning with respect to word selection (see poetry post). I have not found rigorous evidence to support these claims but the theory is sound and a few promising studies offer support for the idea, including the study described in the prior post, carried out by Baumann, Ware, and Edwards, 2007 (and see Graves, 2006; Scott, Skobel, & Wells, 2008).

  • Graves, M.F. (2006). The vocabulary book: Learning and instruction. New York: Teachers College Press. 
  • Scott, J., Skobel, B., & Wells, J. (2008). The word-conscious classroom: Building the vocabulary readers and writers need.   New York: Scholastic - Theory into Practice Series.  
  • Zeno, S. M., Ivens, S. H., Millard, R. T., & Duvvuri, R. (1995). The educator’s word frequency guide. New York: Touchstone Applied Science Associates, Inc.


  1. The polls are interesting. Keep 'em comin!

  2. Will do, Beth. Yes, the results are interesting and somethings surprising.

  3. I think the perception might have to do with how the words are used. Thinking about what you said one blogger wrote, "If people are smug, they are always smug, because it’s in them, a part of their personality" I actually resonate the opposite way with the two words. I think "Snob" is the word most frequently used, at least what I hear most frequently, and that implies "being" or what someone is that cannot be changed. If someone is said to be smug, that resonates as more temporary with me, which could be a matter of ignorance, but anyway, I think of proud (to a more negative degree) about a certain thing. Anyway, I don't see it as a permanent character flaw, like the word snob conjures up, more of a momentary lapse in manners.

    Fun read, thanks.

  4. Thanks, Buys. You are so right -- it is all about perception and how people use the word. Connotations are personal as well as universal.

    You have modeled the kind of discussion and reflective debate that we might encourage groups of students to occasionally engage in, too.

  5. Anonymous5/28/2013

    The words subservient, submissive, obsequious, and consenting all have similar meanings. Which word would a writer use to express a positive opinion about a person?


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