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Prose and Connotations

A collage of three different houses with words overlaid.

One thing that fascinates me about language is the idea that words have meaning beyond their meaning, and sometimes other meanings we haven’t yet considered. Connotations can be subjective, can rely on other words around them, and are constantly warping and shifting along with the relentless flow of trends and popular culture. 

I love teaching middle school students about these concepts. In one lesson, I presented specific words and asked them if the word had a neutral, positive, or negative connotation. I asked them about “house,” “home,” “cabin,” and “mansion.” 

Almost all my students agreed that “house” is pretty neutral. They picture their childhood drawings of a square with a triangle on top, maybe with a rectangular door and a couple of windows. Occasionally there is a chimney on top with a black crayon’s swirling smoke billowing out. How easily this idea changes, then, when you attach a modifier to it, such as halfway house, or the big house, or, one that I refrained from sharing with my students, crack house. 

The other three words, though similar to “house” in theory, were rated positive by some and negative by others, depending on the student. My own experiences and biases set up an expectation that my students completely obliterated. 

I picture “home” as a safe space. The family I love is there. I have my own room filled with my own eclectic collections of things that make me smile. Home makes me think of curling up in a soft blanket on the couch and watching comfort movies. Perhaps snacks are involved.

For some of my students, however, “home” is a much more complicated idea. For those with many siblings, privacy can be all but impossible. Sometimes home includes parents who yell, people who are unreliable and unpredictable, perhaps people who cause pain. I had a student describe home as her bedroom closet where she kept a sleeping bag, some books, a drawing pad, and a small light; a sanctuary from the pressure of hiding her shifting gender identity from her extremely religious parents. Here are some modifiers again: group home, broken home, foster home. 

I was surprised how split the responses to “cabin” and “mansion” were. Some students pictured a cozy cabin surrounded by budding wildflowers with a spray of sunlight peeking through lightly dappled leaves. Others thought of ominous seclusion, the nightmare of being trapped in the wilderness without a way to contact the outside world, vulnerable to whatever may be lurking in the darkness. Mansion could mean comfortable wealth and luxury, or it might imply the stress of trying to maintain status and power, never knowing who is truly a friend. Or it could just straight up be haunted. 

I’ve also  witnessed shifting connotations firsthand. During my time as an undergraduate student, around 2009 to 2011, I invited a college friend over to my house to play SingStar. I told her that I’d just gotten the “Abba” edition of the karaoke-style game and couldn’t wait to try belting out my version of “Mama Mia.” 

“That’s sick,” she responded. 

My heart dropped. She must really not like Abba if the idea of singing their tunes grossed her out so much. Or did she just not want to hear me sing?

“Oh, well, I have other ones, too. We could sing some Queen or something instead,” I fumbled.

“No, no,” she laughed. I can still hear it now, a laugh like an affectionate pat on the head, both consoling and condescending. “Sick as in, awesome. I love Abba! It sounds fun.” 

That moment I realized how a person could be technically young-ish (my mid-20s) but still feel so old. 

This has me considering how, as a writer, I can ensure that my readers are deriving the intended connotative meaning from the words and phrases I choose. I need to ensure that I’m not leaning into assumptions that a reader’s understanding of a word like home is the same as mine.

I see connotation and character intertwining, even with a third-person narrator, because the reader relies on their voice. In Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things, a good portion of the story is told from the perspective of very young twins, a boy and a girl, who don’t necessarily understand the larger significance of growing up in a caste system that adults in their lives are attempting to defy. While Roy writes the narration in third person, the reader still gets a sense that the world is being filtered through the understanding of the young children within. Once this pattern is established, it is easier for the reader to get that “Bar Nowl” is a child’s interpretation of the words “barn owl.” 

The connection between connotation and character is an easier tool to use when writing in first person. When Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange goes to the Korova milkbar for some “milk-plus,” the reader already understands the drink is spiked with something that amplifies Alex’s destructive and violent urges because that’s what his character has been craving and indulging in since the beginning of the novel. If author Anthony Burgess had not set this up as an expectation through Alex’s characterization beforehand, my assumption, as a reader, would have been entirely different. I would think of “milk-plus” as something that has additional vitamins and nutrients added into the milk, since this novel takes place in a sort of dystopian futuristic setting where nutritious food may be scarce. 

It seems like such a small thing to consider, with all of the other elements writers are asked to pay attention to, but I know I need to consider the specific connotations of my words. I have written about growing up in the Mormon church and the fact that I had to unlearn certain lessons my family and community hammered into me. Often people link Mormonism with sister-wives and polygamy because their only information comes from news stories or documentaries about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Or they envision a pair of young men in suits on bicycles, going door to door to spread the good news written in the Book of Mormon. If I simply said I was raised in the Mormon church, I wouldn’t blame readers for picturing either of these scenarios. I grew up in the Church of Christ, a sect of Mormonism based in Independence, Missouri. This church does not promote polygamy in any way. There are no pairs of men on bikes. Members don’t knock on your door or leave copies of the Book of Mormon in hotel rooms. 

As I write about my experiences in the Mormon church, I am responsible for making sure that my readers aren’t left to put their own connotations on Mormonism. I have to build the groundwork of what I describe as “Mormon Lite,” a sect of Mormonism without polygamy, strict codes for dress and hairstyles, or forced missionary trips. 

During graduate school, I was fortunate enough to have my writing workshopped by people from a variety of cultural, economic, and social backgrounds. These individuals asked questions about my writing that forced me to consider the assumptions I make of my readers, their prior knowledge, and their experiences. If I describe myself as lower middle class, I need to be sure that the reader knows what that looks like. What kind of house do I live in? What car do I drive? What luxuries can I afford? This is going to look different in the midwest United States, where I live, compared with California, or Nambia, or Germany, or Canada. Each place, and the individual readers from those places, have their own connotative ideas of what it means to be a lower middle class citizen.

I am grateful to have had people ask these questions of me in the past, but as individual writers, it’s important that we remember to ask these questions of ourselves. If I want to experiment with my work and stretch new meaning into established language, I need readers to trust that the language fits with the characters and the world I’m creating.

Jenny Hughes is a language arts and writing teacher that has recently received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her writing touches on themes of community, isolation, family, and identity. Jenny lives in Waseca, Minnesota with her husband, Possum, and her two sons, Ryan and Erroll.

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