Category Archives: Usage

Thoughts about special language features, especially “disputed usage”.


Ever tried to go anywhere without any baggage? No razor, perfume, clothes?  Make a fresh start, a new relationship with no reference to your old life?

It’s the stuff of Science Fiction or fantasy to even imagine such a thing. We are what we are because of our pasts and we carry our experiences everywhere we go.

Just like words do, in fact.

Most words have changed meanings over time or have more than one meaning. Just like us, words carry their own baggage with them, even if sometimes they might leave it temporarily outside the door, out of plain sight.

  • To use a word literally correctly is to use a denoted or dictionary meaning in the context.
  • To chose a word because of its historic or associated meanings it to use its connoted, or expanded or associated meanings.

For example, to say something is “nice” isn’t always the anodyne pleasantry we mostly take it to be. It can certainly  express pleasure or agreement but lurking at its treacherous heart is an older meaning: it once meant  “foolish” or “silly”. When a lawyer calls a legal point a “nice point of law” they aren’t necessarily expressing approval, because its the one place in the language where the older meaning is retained – confusingly for the rest of us.

It‘s possible to suggest many things if you use the words carefully enough: “he was a fag-end of a man, yellow at the edges”: “the velvet glove hid an iron hand.” Each of the key words has its own set of connotations – fag-end might mean exhausted, or disreputable (or these days, unhealthy, or even surreptitious enjoyment) or rely on the unpleasantly euphemistic fag to mean homosexual; or refer to that oddly English Public school tradition of serial slavery in the hands of older boys. Yellow is more than just a colour, being also a judgement on one’s courage, or the health of one’s liver. Even edges has a suggestion that we have traversed beyond the comfortable centre of usually accepted-acceptable society. Fe denotes a simple chemical construct, but iron‘s strength and massively unyielding properties are well-known and  famously used as a metaphor for war and belligerence and toughness. And so on.

Connotations are the stuff of poetry. Metaphors rely heavily on connotations if they are to work correctly. So do puns.

When you choose to use a word, check out its past,  for buried there in its etymological baggage is a whole hidden world of powerful symbols, all available for use.

What most annoys me is the use made of this lovely literary heritage by PR mavens and political spin doctors, who unfortunately completely understand the buried power words have to persuade us all. Usually about the wrong things. The more we know about words, the better protected we are when they are misused against us.