Mind Our English

Published: Tuesday April 9, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday August 19, 2013 MYT 4:04:58 PM

The art of allusion

It’s not just about the direct meaning of words, you also have to be mindful of the emotional overtones they carry.

A wide vocabulary is important for a person’s language proficiency, and boosts the skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. In short, a wide vocabulary helps effective communication.

Appropriate vocabulary is important because people have to express their ideas clearly and forcefully. Attention must be given to the connotation of the chosen words in your message. The implicit meaning of the chosen words will arouse the listener, speaker or reader to respond either positively or negatively to your message.

For instance, writers choose words both for what they mean (that is, their dictionary meanings or denotations) and for what they suggest (their connotations, or emotional associations).

For instance, ‘slim’, ‘scrawny’ and ‘svelte’ all have related denotative meanings (thin) but different connotative meanings. And if we’re trying to pay someone a compliment, we better get the connotation right.

When someone calls a woman ‘scrawny’ or ‘skinny’ he has described the woman with negative connotations. If he wants to describe that woman in a positive tone, he will call her “slim” or “svelte”. Svelte means slim, elegant and stylish, and describes a woman in an attractive light.

Here’s another example: the following words and phrases all refer to “a young person”, but their connotations may be quite different depending, in part, on the context in which they appear: youngster, child, kid, little one, small fry, brat, urchin, juvenile, minor.

Some of these words tend to carry favourable connotations (little one), while others are negative (brat), and still others have fairly neutral connotations (child). Calling a young person a brat lets our readers know at once how we feel about the naughty kid.

Thus it is important to learn the implicit meanings attached to words, for emotive vocabulary has positive or negative connotations.

We also wish to be careful about the implications of sexism in our spoken words.

For instance:

master = a powerful man to be obeyed (positive connotation).

mistress = a woman who has power or a woman who depends on a man for support without being wedded to him (negative connotation).

wizard = a man who practises magic, his power has a positive connotation.

witch = a woman with supernatural power; somehow it’s seen as unattractive or evil, or even describes a woman ensnaring a man with her charms.

Who is manning the office? = leading the staff in office (positive connotation)

He is womanising = seducing women (negative connotation)

Next, we come to euphemisms, which is a kind of “doublespeak”, or a statement with more than one dubious meaning, which is intended to hide the truth.

In society, government officials, teachers, politicians, advertisers, businessmen, friends and family use euphemisms to guide (or misguide) the listener.

Witness this scenario: your neighbour, Jane, may be wearing a bright orange floral dress and a red hat which make her look silly and flamboyant.

She may say: “Hi! Good morning. How do I look today. I am dressed to go for an early lunch.”

You take a good look at her and think, “Oh dear! She looks like an overdressed old lady in gaudy clothes. She would look better in a light brown dress.”

However, she is not a close friend and you cannot be so frank about her outfit. Thus instead you say, “Hi dear! I think you look so, er ... bright and colourful!”

Therefore you are forced to use euphemisms to avoid hurting her feelings. The word “euphemism” comes from two Greek words eu and pheme which mean, “happy speaking”. It’s a word or phrase that is less offensive and unpleasant. Other euphemisms are as follow:

> “Adult entertainment” instead of pornography

> Au natural instead of naked

> Big-boned instead of heavy or overweight

> Portly or having “ample proportions” instead of fat

> “Comfort woman” or “sex worker” instead of prostitute

> “Use the rest room” instead of “go to the toilet”

> “The birds and the bees”, a phrase often used when talking to children about sex and procreation

> “Between jobs” instead of unemployed

> “Go all the way” instead of having sex

> “Domestic helper” instead of maid

> “Sanitation technician” instead of garbage man

> “Kicked the bucket” instead of died.

When we communicate with people in the professional or social world, it’s important to understand the implicit meanings of words and also understand the use of euphemisms.

Just imagine if we are with people of strict religious beliefs, and perhaps we are walking near Patpong, the red light district of Bangkok. It may offend the delicate sensitivities of our companions if we say: “There are prostitutes and naked girls around there who shake their tantalising bottoms to attract clients.”

Indeed, we may come across as being uncouth.

It is more polite if one says, “Don’t go near the red light district. There are many female butterflies of the night.”

Therefore, please remember, we have to Mind our English!

Peggy Tan is a lecturer by day, writer by night and a mountain climber and scuba diver on weekends.

Tags / Keywords: Education, mind our english

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