A word’s denotation is the literal meaning of the word. It’s what you find if you look the word up in a dictionary.

A word’s connotation involves the feelings, emotions, associations, cultural implications, etc. that the word suggests.

A classic example is the word home. The literal meaning of home (the denotation) is the structure in which a person lives.

But the connotation of home involves everything else that the word suggests (warmth, acceptance, comfort, and belonging).

A word can have a positive, negative, or neutral connotation. We, of course, want to be careful with the words that have a negative connotation.

Here are three words that you may not know have a negative connotation. Be careful using them.

skinny

Skinny doesn’t always have a negative connotation. If this were the case, clothing brands wouldn’t use the term skinny jeans.

But the word skinny can carry a connotation of weakness or excessive thinness, so we need to be careful with the term.

Examples:

“There’s no way you lift weights three times a week. You’re so skinny.”

“I don’t want to do long distance running. I’m afraid I’ll get too skinny.”

“You look skinny. Have you been getting enough food?”

Here are some terms with a more positive connotation:

  • thin
  • slender
  • lean (having little fat)
  • svelte (gracefully thin)

Besides skinny, here are some other terms with a negative connotation:

  • scrawny (thin in a weak, unattractive way)
  • lanky (ungracefully tall and thin)
  • gangly (awkwardly tall and thin)
  • bony (so thin the bones are showing)
  • gaunt (thin due to suffering, hunger, age, etc.)
  • emaciated (extremely thin and weak because of lack of food)
A skinny horse. (Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay)

foreigner

Many people feel that foreigner can connote someone who doesn’t belong or who feels unwelcome.

Intolerant people might refer to immigrants as foreigners as a way of communicating that they (the immigrants) are not welcome in the country.

Or international travelers might say they feel like foreigners if they feel out of place.

Here are some terms with a more positive connotation:

  • people from other countries
  • immigrants
  • expats (someone who lives outside their native country, as in Brazilian expats or American expats)
  • exchange students (students who study abroad at a partnering school or institution)
  • international students
  • tourists¬†
Foreigner isn’t the most welcoming term. Another expression, such as international student or immigrant, is often a better choice. (Photo by RavindraPanwar from Pixabay)

strange

Strange can have a negative connotation, particularly when we’re talking about people.

Collins English Dictionary gives one definition of strange as “something that is unusual or unexpected, and makes you feel slightly nervous or afraid.”

Examples:

“Our neighbor called the police about a strange man wandering the neighborhood.”

“My uncle has some strange religious beliefs. I think he might be in a cult.”

“Casey brought a strange dessert to the picnic. I don’t think anybody touched it.”

Here are some terms that have a more positive connotation:

  • different
  • unique (the only one of its kind or unusual in a special way)
Calling this house unique sounds much more positive than calling it strange. (Photo by tookapic from Pixabay)

For more terms to be careful with (and better alternatives), see 100+ Common Euphemisms You Need to Know.

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