English Words and Their Background

By George H. McKnight | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVIII
GENERALIZATION AND SPECIALIZATION

Springing from the changes which have affected the meaning of words are some results which have profoundly affected the character of language. In order to understand the nature of these results, let us turn to a useful distinction offered by the study of logic. The logician distinguishes between two aspects of the meaning of words. He uses the term denotation to mean the object or objects to which a name applies, and the term connotation for the specific qualities that make up the meaning content of a word. The wider the denotation of a word, he points out, the narrower the connotation; the fuller the connotation, the more restricted the denotation.

The extreme type of words of limited denotation is the proper name, as indeed the word proper indicates. In the phrase 'proper name' the word proper retains an earlier meaning still surviving in the French propre, meaning 'own.' The English 'proper name,' therefore, is the exact equivalent in meaning of the German Eigenname which means 'own name.' The denotation of a proper name is limited to an individual person or place. Its connotation, on the other hand, includes the countless special attributes or qualities belonging to a definite individual. The other extreme may be illustrated by such words as person or place or thing, three words the denotation of which covers practically the whole of existence, but the connotation of which is almost zero.

In the history of language it has already been pointed out that the concrete names with large connotation ante

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