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Thursday, 31 January 2013
Home arrow Writers and the dictionary arrow Literary issues arrow Connotation vs. denotation
Connotation vs. denotation
Problems of using literary sources for quotations: connotation as opposed to denotation
A century and more after the birth of the academic discipline of linguistics, it is now readily understood that literary writers may use language in ways which are rather different from those of 'ordinary writers' – though this is a knotty subject matter on which it is dangerous to generalize (see brief sketch at Initial results: Literature and the lexicon? and Lexicographical reservations, and compare Relationship between language and literature? earlier in the present section).

One of the problems, for lexicographers who wish to use examples of poetic language as evidence for the fixed meaning of a word or sense, is that poetry often exploits specifically contextual nuances of language - along with the reader's sense that a poem's words and meanings can (paradoxically) be highly labile and far-reaching. In other words, poetry often relies on the connotatory rather than (or as well as) the denotatory sense of words. But dictionaries have to confine themselves to telling us what words denote, not what they connote – otherwise they would become unmanageably, perhaps impossibly, large.[1]

As W. H. Auden and C. Day-Lewis described in the 1927 edition of the journal Oxford Poetry, there is a
logical conflict, between the denotatory and the connotatory sense of words...between, that is to say, an asceticism tending to kill language by stripping words of all association and a hedonism tending to kill language by dissipating their sense under a multiplicity of associations. (Preface, pp. vi-vii)
William Empson quoted this remark in his Seven Types of Ambiguity (first published 1930; see Empson 2004: 234). He goes on to say, 'The methods I have been using [sc. in this famous study of ambiguity in poetry] seem to assume that all poetical language is debauched into associations to any required degree; I ought at this point to pay decent homage to the opposing power' – in effect, to the denotatory technique exemplified in dictionaries.
In poetry and other sorts of creative writing, the relationship between the denotation of a word – what the dictionary sets out to analyse and define – and the connotations of that same word, may be much less stable than in other types of text. But the OED method of printing short quotations as evidence of a word's meaning and usage inevitably dislocates poetic usage from the mooring (whether poem or novel), i.e. the immediate context, on which its meaning depends. The relationship between connotation and denotation is thus further destabilized. At the same time, it can be very difficult for the dictionary reader to understand quotations from poetic usage once these quotations have been divorced from their context and put into the OED.

As we have seen, Murray occasionally referred to the difficulties of using literary language for quotations, but only to express exasperation at the failure of writers to use words accurately (in his view) or be able to account for what they had meant. Burchfield can sometimes show the same rather contemptuous attitude; for example, he says of T. S. Eliot's use of the word opherion in a draft of The Waste Land, 'it would appear that Eliot's word is simply an error for orpharion, a large musical instrument of the lute kind, much used in the seventeenth century. It is a classic example of the kind of linguistic flaw found in the work of most major writers' (Burchfield 1989: 70). Elsewhere, he remarked that 'Auden was not a scholar and often didn't know what words meant', echoing, if unconsciously, Murray's complaint about Robert Browning, who 'constantly used words without regard to their proper meaning', and 'added greatly to the difficulties of the Dictionary' (Browning had earlier told Murray 'that he found the Dictionary "most delightful" and intended to read every word of it'; see K. M. E. Murray 1977: 235, Brewer 2007b: 195).

Neither Murray nor Burchfield, however, acknowledges the difficulty of quoting literary works out of context, especially when the meaning of the word that the quotation is supposed to illustrate does not readily appear from the quotation itself – as in this extract from a poem by Donald Davie, quoted by Burchfield to illustrate the meaning of the word loam-foot:
Come with me by the self-consuming north (The North is spirit), to the loam-foot west And opulent departures of the south;
or this example from Auden as the last citation under OED's entry for apotropaic ('Having or reputed to have the power of averting evil influence or ill luck'):
Apotropaically scowling, a tinker Shuffles past -
a quotation from Old Man's Road dated 1956, which Burchfield evidently preferred to a more transparent quotation from a non-literary source dated 1966 that still survives in the bundle of slips from which he made his choice (preserved in the OED archives), despite the fact that it indicates the word's continued currency to a later date than the Auden quotation; or (Auden again, this time from Nones, 1952):
How will you answer when from their qualming spring The immortal nymphs fly shrieking,
quoted by Burchfield (without comment) as the sole example of qualming (ppl. a.; 'Of the nature of a qualm; characterized by qualms') since Milton (1644); or E. Blunden's
tender amaranthine domes Of angel-evenings (1929)
quoted by Burchfield to illustrate the attributive use of the noun angel.

To understand all these quotations (so far as mere denotation goes) you need advance knowledge of the definition supplied by the Dictionary: in other words the quotations depend upon, rather than support, the definition. (The connotations are impossible to divine without going back to the original text from which they have been plucked out of context!) This is a peculiar feature, given that, according to the OED's own account, the quotations in this great work are supposed to be constitutive rather than illustrative of meaning: that is, the lexicographers deduce the meanings of words from their quotations (rather than deduce the meanings of their quotations from their pre-determined definitions). See further Brewer 2007b: 127-9.

[1] The distinction between connotation and denotation can be found in scholastic philosophy. It was revived by John Stuart Mill in 1843 and has recently been discussed by semioticians following its treatment by Roland Barthes. See Barnes 1945, Lyons 1977: chapter 7, Barthes 1967: chapter 4, and Daniel Chandler's excellent material at Semiotics for Beginners (go here).
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