Fun with Language: the Power of Connotation

The English language is filled with words that have double and triple and quadruple meanings, words that change meanings within a generation, and words that alter their connotations within a few years.

For instance, in the fifth installment of Mr. B Speaks! Mr. B describes lurking in a closet to spy on Pamela. This closet would not be the type of closet we have in our houses today--complete with shelves and clothes on hangers. Rather, as Leslie Quinn will tell the judge later, "A closet was a small room like a breakfast nook. With a door. It often contained books and a desk."

An 18th century prostitute:
what "sauciness" led to in the 18th century.
Another word that reoccurs over and over again in Richardson's Pamela is the word saucy or sauciness--to describe Pamela. In modern parlance, the word means nearly the same thing it did in the 1700s: cheeky, pert, flippant, bold, impudent.

What has changed is the word's connotation--the emotions and images associated with the word. The connotation for saucy in the 18th century were far more negative than it is now.

Changing connotations is an unique, lingual phenomenon that has occurred--in the modern world--with words like handicapped. The word's meaning hasn't changed in the last twenty years; rather, the word has accumulated negative feelings; in an effort to dump the negative feelings, handicapped became special (very briefly) which then became disabled. The problem, of course, is that being handicapped/disabled (and even, frankly, "special") kind of stinks, so the replacement words will continue to accumulate negative emotions, no matter how often they are changed (however, this is less true than it is used to be since there are fewer social stigmas associated with being disabled than there used to be).

Likewise, racism unfortunately exists whether someone is referred to as Negro, black, or African-American. A change in terminology cannot single-handedly effect a change in attitude. 

The introduction of new terms to counteract negative connotations often leads to confusion over the current courteous and/or politically-correct term. As P.J. O'Rourke writes in All the Trouble in the World, regarding a discussion of Huckleberry Finn in a college classroom:
There was a great deal of fumbling with racial terms, among white and nonwhite students both. No one seemed exactly sure whether or when to say "black" or "African-American." How much better if we just called each other by our names.
An interesting example of reverse negative association is "Indian." I was taught in school to say Native American rather than Indian. Now the terms are used interchangeably by Native Americans and non-Native Americans alike. (It does get confusing when one is actually talking about inhabitants of India.)

My own practice is to be polite and call people what they want to be called. (I have black friends who don't like "African-American." After all, I don't refer to myself as "Anglo-Celt-American.") And also to give people a  break when they get confused.
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To return to Pamela: by describing Pamela as saucy, a somewhat loaded adjective, Richardson opened up the door for portrayals of Pamela as a seductive harlot out for all she could get.

Now-a-days, of course, the term has a far more positive, and youthful, connotation: "The little girl was saucy to her mother."

When it came time for me to describe Pamela, I relied on Pamela's explanation of her behavior from Pamela II. In answer to a letter from her sister-in-law, Pamela describes her faults, including her sauciness:
I am naturally of a saucy temper: and with all my appearance of meekness and humility, can resent, and sting too, when I think myself provoked.
What would you expect, she goes on to write, when I have to defend herself against so many detractors?

In other words, Pamela gets provoked and lashes out with witty barbs before she remembers herself/her station and retreats. This is the characterization I utilized, making Pamela neither as flirtatious nor as manipulative as detractors often paint her to be.

I should note that despite (or because of) the word's negative associations in the 1700s, Mr. B enjoys Pamela's sauciness, even when he is exasperated. Whatever society's views, a writer--in this case, Richardson--can make the language work for him: at least, within the confines of the text.


Eugene said...

Here's a succinct discussion of the "euphemism treadmill."

Kate Woodbury said...

This article made me think of when the police on Law & Order: UK refer to someone as "African-Caribbean." I understand the context (and wonder how many black Americans, such as Sidney Poitier, could also use the term), but every time they say it, I do a mental double-take.

THAT reminds me of a Quantum Leap episode where Sam leaps into a member of the Klu Klux Klan. The people around him use the "n--" word without thinking. Every time they do, Sam flinches. It isn't a politically-correct flinch. It is viscerally uncomfortable for him to hear the term.

The connection in both cases is how language becomes short-hand to users. The reporter who mistakenly used "African-American" to describe black Tunisian boys in France wasn't being deliberately, uh, stupid (okay, a little). But for her, the word "African-American" was short-hand for the image just as for Sam, the "n--" word is short-hand for racism and prejudice and idiocy. All language really is a kind of pidgin speak. This isn't a right or wrong thing; it's just the way language works (for example, in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis discusses learning Greek and how he realized he was beginning to truly comprehend the language when he associated the Greek word for boat NOT with its English translation "boat" but with the image of a boat).