Tag Archives: Connotations

A Woman who …

550px-Margaret_Thatcher_(Retouched)The death of a public figure  is always marked by a respectful reflection which highlights the strengths and weaknesses of a career lived in the public eye. The announcement of the death of Margaret Thatcher on Monday 8th April was no exception. On Tuesday 9th April, the newspapers were full of comment and interpretation of a political life that changed British society – and that is something that all commentators can agree on, whatever their political position

Thatcher 2

 This word cloud is made from the language being used by journalists and commentators, friends, colleagues and members of the public in remembering Margaret Thatcher. Inevitably, she has been remembered for her ‘firsts’: first woman leader of a party; first woman Prime Minister; longest serving twentieth century prime minister; and the only British Prime Minister to have a new word created based on her name. This is an example of derivation by affixation: the proper noun Thatcher + the Greek suffix –ism (‘one who believes in’) i.e. Thatcherism – ‘the policies and style of government associated with Margaret Thatcher’.

For linguists, the language of remembrance is a rich field. Collecting the media sound-bites used to pay tribute to Margaret Thatcher reveals a distinctive grammatical structure: noun phrases focus attention on her qualities as a leader, as a prime minister, as a ‘historical’ figure and as a woman; the pre- and post-modification allows contributors to express their attitude.

So where to start?

Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister800px-Margaret_Thatcher_near_helicopter

a remarkable Prime Minister   

John Major, former Prime Minister (Conservative)

a truly formidable Prime Minister

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland (Scottish National Party)

… Prime Minister for a long time. Honour that. 

Clare Short, former International Development Secretary (Labour)

the most rottenest Prime Minister ever

Member of the public

These noun phrases tell us as much about the contributors as they do about Margaret Thatcher. The Conservative John Major uses the positive evaluative adjective remarkable (denotation: deserving of notice or comment – and thus striking or singular),  while the Scottish Nationalist Alex Salmond chooses formidable (denotation: causing fear or alarm; inspiring dread or apprehension). At first glance, this adjective appears to be positive, and yet has layers of meaning which undercut our initial impression – intensified by the adverb of degree truly, the implicitly negative effect is amplified.

The member of the public is more explicit – he does not need to dress his attitude in respectful tones. The double superlative (most rottenest) and the emphatic adverb ever clearly indicate that this voter is not a Conservative supporter. The Labour MP Clare Short opts to comment on Thatcher’s length of service in the post-modifying  prepositional phrase for a long time. This allows her to side-step the need to reflect positively on a controversial right wing Prime Minister. Her imperative (Honour that.), however, implicitly suggests that there is nothing else worth praising.

Margaret  Thatcher as a leader

Margaret_Thatcher_1983   a strong leader

David Cameron, Prime Minister (Conservative)

  a fearless leader

Bill Clinton, former President of the US (Democrat)

an inspirational leader who carried high the banner of her convictions, and whose principles in the end helped shape a better, freer world

George W. Bush, former President of the US (Republican)

a great leader

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel (right wing Likud party)

We may expect comments about leadership to be less party-political, but the positive pre-modifying adjectives strong and great are chosen by people who will, at least to some extent, share Thatcher’s right wing principles. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, describes her using the broad evaluative adjective fearless. Because  its connotations depend on context, this adjective is ambiguous. It could seen as ‘feint praise’  – while apparently praising her decisiveness, he may also be criticising what is sometimes seen as her political ruthlessness.

The tone of the long pre- and post-modified noun phrase is very positive. The connotations of the adjective inspirational and the abstract nouns principle, confidence and clarity explicitly suggest  that Margaret Thatcher’s leadership qualities are exceptional. As a Republican, George W. Bush can identify with Thatcher’s right wing politics. 

Margaret Thatcher as a figureheadThatcher_reviews_troops_(cropped)

a towering political figure

Tony Blair, former Prime Minister (Labour)

a unique figure

Ed Miliband, Leader of the Opposition (Labour)

a landmark political figure

Charles Kennedy, former leader of the Liberal Democrat Party

The contributors here do not share Thatcher’s political views and while their comments are respectful, they lack the effusive tone of George W. Bush. The pre-modifiers are less personal: the adjective unique, the verb modifier towering and the noun landmark suggest the scale of Thatcher’s achievements while keeping a suitable political distance. The choice of words is diplomatic.

As a woman who …

… saved the country she loved and fought for so tirelessly

Daily Mail

… tore Britain apart

Morning Star

… transformed life in this country, profoundly, permanently and through sheer force of personality

The Times

… divided a nation

Daily Mirror

… changed Britain

The Independent

Many of the newspapers used a post modified noun phrase A woman who …  to comment on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, either as the front page headline or in the report itself.

All we need to do here is to read the verbs. In the post-modifying relative clauses, they tell a complete story. The right wing press choose past tense verbs with positive connotations – saved, transformed (reinforced in this case by the  strong connotations of the adverbs profoundly/permanently and the prepositional phrase through sheer force of personality). The left wing press choose verbs with negative connotations – tore apartdivided. The Independent, living up to its name, chooses the neutral verb changed.

As a person

478px-Margaret_Thatcher_headshot  a terrific person to spend time socially with

Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury

  a very, very kindly lady

Local Conservative Party member 

a far more caring and modest person in retirement than you get from those sort of clips

Baroness Anne Jenkin of Kennington, House of Lords (Conservative)

The people who have commented on Thatcher in a more personal way are those who have a different kind of relationship – these are people who interacted with her in social contexts. The language is almost homely, describing an individual quite removed from the public ‘figurehead’. The adjectives terrific and kindly have a slightly dated feel, and there is a warm enthusiasm in Lord Carey’s choice of adjective and in the repetition of the degree adverb very. 

Baroness Jenkin bridges the gap between the two representations of Margaret Thatcher. The pre-modifiers, the comparative compound adjectives more caring and modest, mirror the warmth and familiarity of Lord Carey and the local Conservative Party lady, while the degree adverb far intensifies the positive connotationsThe post-modifying comparative clause, on the other hand, sets personal experience against media representation – it suggests that the ‘Margaret Thatcher’ Lady Jenkin knew was not the same as the one the media dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’ and the ‘Milk-Snatcher’.

Amongst the praise and celebration, the diplomacy and the delicately worded epithets, there were some explicitly negative responses. These were, however, not noun phrases that commented directly on Margaret Thatcher as a politician or as a private individual. Recognising that her family will be grieving, the criticisms focus instead on Thatcher’s record, on the political legacy she left behind. For Neil Kinnock, former Labour leader, her time in 10 Downing Street was an unmitigated disaster; for a resident in her old Finchley constituency, she destroyed the infrastructure of our society and created a consumer-based generation; for the Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, she did great hurt to Irish people.        

When a public figure dies, particularly in the case of a politician like Margaret Thatcher who evokes such strong emotions, a private and personal loss becomes public property. What we can see in the examples quoted here are people paying tribute to the life of someone they admire, people treading a delicate line between political judgement and diplomatic reflection, and people rejoicing in a friendship.

Some useful links for further language study: 

[I should perhaps point out that the ‘readings’ expressed here are my own and that the people cited have in no way endorsed my interpretation of their words.]

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Words that cause offence

“I can see myself leaving here quite soon. I love this country but I’ve had enough of it. I don’t see what we’re being given back. I just see the country being raped …” 

Ray Winstone, talkSPORT Radio (8 March 2013)

Free_speech_doesn't_mean_careless_talk^_-_NARA_-_535383Does free speech give us the right to say anything without censorship or should we avoid offending others?

In a chatty radio interview, Winstone used an emotive verb to express his feelings about the British tax system.  It reflected a personal point of view: the government shows a lack of responsibility in the way it uses the tax revenue it raises and Winstone believes it is ruining the country.

While celebrities often complain about high tax rates, Winstone’s choice of verb has caused a media storm. Opinion is divided. Is he a straight-talking bloke using colourful language that is typical of his hard-men film characters? Or is he an insensitive rich man  failing to distinguish between a serious crime and a personal gripe?

Had this conversation taken place in a private context, it would have been an inappropriate verb, but ephemeral – once spoken, it would have been gone. In the public context of a radio interview, however, lexical choice becomes a more delicate matter.  However informal and personal the occasion may appear, however well the participants may know each other, broadcasters should always be aware of their wider audience. Their language must be acceptable.

Perhaps the form of the word here plays as much a part in causing offence as its denotation and connotations. The passive continuous verb form (being raped) creates a sense of immediacy that makes the act itself more prominent. While recognising that the use is figurative, the effect is unpleasant.  Equating rape and paying taxes is a rather thoughtless comparison.

An interesting contrast can be drawn with the title of a novel published in 1959: The Rape of the Fair Country. This novel by Foxes_Bridge_CollieryAlexander Cordell tells the story of the Welsh iron and coal communities of Blaenavon and Nantyglo during the  Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century.  The figurative ‘rape’ here describes the destruction of the Welsh landscape by industry and the exploitation of the workers in their bitter struggle with the English ironmasters.

It is difficult to imagine this title causing offence, perhaps because ‘rape’ is the head of a noun phrase rather than the head of a verb phrase. Its effect is therefore less forceful. Moreover, there is a clear social and political argument underlying the lexical choice: its emotive connotations are designed to make us think about the situation in the Welsh valleys as the workers face physical hardship and the ravishing of their land.

Unfortunate – yes; malicious – no. Whether you think Winstone has been politically incorrect or not will probably depend on whether you think the wider point he makes is personal or political.

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That’s a horrible phrase!

– if you look at the fact that we now have more people, 1234670702813675970industrial commercial credit.svg.medthat’s men and     women, in work than ever before – that’s a signal that the companies themselves are really more optimistic – they would effectively be de-stocking … their human capital … it’s what they’re not doing – they’re actually hiring people …

– that’s a horrible phrase – you mean sacking people don’t you.

World at One, Radio 4 (Thursday 7 March 2013)

Euphemism can be society’s way of dealing with emotionally difficult or taboo subjects. We do not die, we ‘pass away’; drug addicts have a ‘chemical dependency’; pornography is re-branded as ‘adult entertainment’; contraception is discussed at ‘family planning’ clinics. Equally, euphemism can soften critical judgements: people have ‘ample proportions’ (fat) or are ‘vertically challenged’ (short). This kind of linguistic substitution is based on concealment,  but its aim is not purposefully deceptive – it just makes unpalatable or potentially embarrassing concepts more acceptable.

The problem comes when politics and big business manipulate language for their own gains. When sacking becomes ‘down-sizing’  – or as in this example, de-stocking … human capital – then the linguistic substitutions should set the alarm bells ringing. The replacement of a commonly understood word with something so detached and apparently neutral is intentionally deceptive. It aims to dehumanise the process by reducing people to the level of ‘product’: they have no value as individuals, only as potential capital. Making people redundant therefore becomes less personal – and easier to carry out.

In a military/political context, this deception seems more unscrupulous since it allows those in power to manipulate our response. Important documents have sections ‘redacted’ rather than censored; civilian deaths in military conflict are ‘collateral damage’; a ‘surgical strike’ is a precision bombing; enemies are ‘neutralised’ rather than killed. The language is technical; the connotations are neutral. The effect is to distance us from the true horror of war. This kind of euphemism is often called ‘Doublespeak’ – language that deliberately distorts meaning in order to mislead.

The frightening thing about the use of euphemisms is their power to efface the memory of actual cruelties. Behind the façade of a history falsified by language, the painful particulars of war are lost.

David Bromwich

For an interesting glossary of recent euphemistic military terms, follow the link below;


The comments linked to the post on 28 February 2013, ‘Interim – the power of a word‘ are also thought-provoking.

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It’s all in the names


Do we have lots of DNA junk or not? Many scientists believe that up to 90% of the DNA in our genome has no biological function and is therefore not vital to life. Recent research by the Encode project has challenged this. And now a dispute has broken out.


Were the people who carried out the research ‘scientists‘? Or were they ‘badly trained technicians‘, as claimed by a critical paper published in the Genome Biology and Evolution journal.

Naming is a powerful thing … and there’s a linguistic attack on three levels here …

1. the denotation (dictionary meaning)

SCIENTIST: a person who studies or practises any science

TECHNICIAN: a person skilled in a practical or mechanical art; a person who does the practical work in a laboratory

2. the connotations (associations)

SCIENTIST: associated with intelligence, logic, and the capacity for original thought

TECHNICIAN: practical and skilled, but not necessarily associated with academic learning or breaking new ground with life-changing discoveries

3. the confrontational pre-modification (badly trained)

the past participle trained functions as an adjective pre-modified by the negative adverb of manner badly

We are meant to respond to scientists as a positive label, and to badly trained technicians as a negative label.  The names are designed to undermine the new findings and to reinforce the prestige of previous research.  

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Interim – the power of a word

Rafael Benitez is unhappy with his title. In a speech after Chelsea had beaten13455754401401239785Manager Between Chair and Desk.svg.med Middlesbrough 2-0 in the fifth round of the FA Cup, Benitez objected to being called “interim manager”. So why is “interim manager” linguistically and semantically so different from “manager”?

In structure, both are noun phrases, but the pre-modifying adjective “interim” alters our response to the head noun.  This is the power of pre-modification – it affects the way we interpret the noun that follows.

The meaning of the adjective appears to undermine the authoritative connotations of “manager” in this context.  For Benitez, it makes his role seem less important because it suggests that he is only transitional, temporary – a stand-in until someone else (someone better or more suitable?) can be appointed.


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