Definition vs. Connotation

Cult symbol (source:  Dangaard via WikiCommons)

Cult symbol (source: Dangaard via WikiCommons)

The other day, my son asked me the meaning of a word. I started to tell him, at which point my husband yelled at me. “Don’t tell him stuff that’s wrong,” my husband admonished.

So, I thought I’d talk today about definition vs. connotation. The definition of a word is what it literally means, while the connotation is what it evokes in people, what comes to mind when they think of the word.

I told my son, without a second thought that a cult was a bunch of crazy people who get together to practice their nutty ideas. And I would argue that while this is not the literal definition of a cult, it gives a pretty good impression of what comes to mind with a lot of the modern day cults. Now, the actual definition of a cult, according to Merriam Websters is simply “a formal religious veneration”; or (3) “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.”

While this is true, in the modern world, when people say cult we think of vibrant, deranged leaders like David Koresh and Jim Jones and a group of hapless followers all too willing to drink the Koolaid and do what they’re told even when it clearly ain’t right.

So, when we write, it’s important to think both about definition and connotation with words. Usually, if it’s a word we love, a word in our lexicon, we know both definition and connotation. However, when people break out their thesauruses, they often get into trouble with connotation.   Words can literally have similar meanings (which is often what online thesauruses will put out), but connotatively be very different.

Just something to think about as we write.

And since this all started with a child asking an adult to define a word, I thought I’d leave you with this great little video of a mom trying to explain the meaning of “virgin.”

P.S. If you’re wondering why my nine-year old is wondering about cults (valid question), it has to do with wrestling. One of the wrestlers he likes uses the song “Cult of Personality” for his theme.

About RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist who now writes fiction. She's reported for the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, as well as the smaller publications Education Technology News and Campus Crime. She has two published novels, Life First and Second Life and blogs for Indies Unlimited and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. For exclusive content and first looks at her new work, sign up for the newsletter at
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