Connotation: making associations
Different kinds of associations
We often associate words [make connections] with something that is not
obvious from the literal meaning of the word. The dove, for example, is a white
bird that has associations with peace. So if a journalist calls a politician a
dove, they are suggesting that he or she is a peacemaker. Similarly, they might
call a more aggressive, hard-line politician a hawk, a bird which hunts its prey.
Some associations like those of dove and hawk will be shared by most speakers
of English and they may even be included in a good dictionary for learners.
Sometimes associations are not the same for all native speakers of the same
language, but may vary from one geographical area to another. Black cats, for
example, have associations with good luck in Britain but with bad luck in the
Many associations are purely personal. Someone who had a bad experience of
dogs in childhood may think of a dog as being ﬁerce and frightening, whereas
for others dogs may represent loyalty and friendship. The most commonly
shared association of the word dog in English is "faithfulness". However, the
phrase a dog's life is used to refer to a very unhappy and unpleasant life.
Journalists, advertisers and other writers or speakers who want to interest and entertain their
audience often make use of word associations. A fashion advert might ask, for example, "Would you
like to have that Paris look?", which draws on the associations of Paris with glamour and style. Or
someone might refer to cowboy builders, meaning builders who are not careful or trustworthy.
It might seem difficult at first to understand this kind of language, but your knowledge both of the
world and of the primary meanings of words will help you. Paris, for example, is known throughout
the world as a centre of high fashion and it is quite possible that the name Paris is associated with
glamour in your own language too. If you have seen a Western, you will have seen how cowboys
often behave in a careless and dishonest way.
Think, for example, about the words shark, scar and diamond. You probably know their literal
meanings - a large sea creature with sharp teeth, a mark left on the skin after a cut has healed, and
a precious stone, respectively - but what associations do you think they have for English speakers in
general? What might someone mean if they said the following?
"They"re all sharks in that garage."
"I think that new office block is a scar on the landscape."
"Emma's a real diamond."
The idea of sharks as sharp-toothed creatures with an aggressive reputation should help you to
understand that the speaker does not like the garage. The fact that a scar is a mark of a wound on
something that was once unspoilt should help you to appreciate that the speaker does not like the
new office block. The beauty and high value of a diamond as a precious stone should help you to see
that the speaker has a high opinion of Emma.
Research into language learning shows that words are better remembered if you have personal
associations in mind as you learn them. Remember to think about what your associations with a word
are as you learn it.
Answer these questions about the associations discussed on the opposite page.
1 Would you recommend a cowboy plumber to a friend?
2 Would a politician be more likely to be called a dove if they were a peacemaker or if they argued
for military action?
3 What is more likely to be a scar on the landscape - a waterfall or a factory chimney?
4 Would you be pleased to be called a diamond?
5 Would you be pleased to be called a hawk?
6 In Britain would you be likely to see a black cat on a good luck card or not?
7 What characteristic is a dog most typically said to have in English?
8 Would you be likely to call a business Supersharks?
Match the colours with their associations in English. Are any of these the same in your
language? (See Unit 65 for more about the associations of colour in English.)
f a coward
Are these statements about the associations of animals in English correct? When a
statement is wrong, correct it.
If you say someone has a dog's life, you think they have an easy life.
If you call a businessman a snake, you trust him.
If you say someone's hair is mousy, you mean it is dark brown and strikingly attractive.
If you say someone is being ratty, you mean they are irritable.
If you say someone can be catty, you mean they tend to be lazy.
If you say something is fishy, you mean it is suspicious.
If you call someone a sheep, you mean they are very independent-minded.
If you say that someone is hawk-eyed, you mean that they have very big eyes.
Can you make any associations between the colours in 96.2 and the animals and their
associations in 96.3 that will help you to understand why these associations have
Some of these have associations of good luck in English and some have associations of
bad luck. Decide whether each picture represents good luck or bad luck.
13th a horseshoe
Over to you
Write down five colours and five animals. What are your own associations for these words?