The denotation of a word is what it literally means. The connotation is the emotional loading of the word, which can be negative or positive—how the word makes you feel. To illustrate, “swarm” and “infestation” have very strong negative connotations. Whether the connotation is negative or positive depends on many factors, including how the audience feels about the word. For example, the connotation of “socialism” can vary greatly between people. Two words can have the same denotation, but very different connotations. For example, the slang term “pig” and the word “police” have the same denotation, but very different connotations. As would be expected, rhetoric generally makes use of the influence of connotation in order to affect how people feel.
Words that have strong connotations can be very powerful rhetorical tools. As with any powerful tool, people will want to use it—even if they must steal it. Hence, connotation theft. A word can derive its connotation from a variety of factors, such as historical context, and this is how the connotation is earned. If the word is then knowingly used for that connotation in a manner inconsistent with those factors, then the connotation has been stolen. This can also involve intentionally ignoring a word’s denotation in order to use its connotation. A person can also unintentionally steal connotation by being unaware that their use is inconsistent with the factors, such as the historical context or denotation, that give the word the connotation in question.
Put into a template, connotation theft looks like this:
1. Word W has connotation C because of P,Q and R.
2. Word W is used in situation S because it has connotation C.
3. But S is inconsistent with P, Q, R.
A good example for the discussion to follow is the word “fascism.” The word has a strong negative connotation primarily because of the Nazis and their numerous crimes. To a far lesser extent, fascist Italy and Spain also contributed to this negative connotation. Because of the strong negative connotation of “fascism” calling something “fascism” or associating it with fascism can be an effective rhetorical tactic. That is, it can generate negative feelings towards the thing in question and these can influence what people think. Because of this, it is not surprising that the term is often used in American politics. George W. Bush’s administration was called fascist. Bush in turn used the term “Islamofascism” (which is distinct from Islamic fascism) in an effort to create negative feelings. Obama was called a fascist and, of course, Trump is being called a fascist now. Interestingly, the left is now being called fascist and some claim that the Nazis were leftists (mainly because of the “socialism” in their name). One might thus agree with a quote attributed to George Orwell, that “[T]he word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.'” This, it could be argued, arose from connotation theft: using the word for its negative connotation while ignoring its denotation and historical context served to split them apart.
Orwell’s assertion shows one of the problems with connotation theft: it can rob a word of its denotation and historical context, making it a mere rhetorical tool to be used as desired. Another problem is that connotation theft is a deceit—the emotional power of the word is exploited by intentionally misapplying the word. For example, some on the right assert that the left in general and the socialists in particular are fascists. Since most people feel that fascism is bad, those that accept this assertion will feel that the left is bad. The problem is that this is a deceit. First, while the National Socialists used the word “socialist”, they were neither socialists nor leftists. Fascism is, in fact, a reaction to and an opponent of the left. Second, the negative connotation of “fascism” does not arise from whatever socialist style programs or policies the Nazis or other fascists might have implemented. It arises from the specifically fascist parts of fascism and the Nazi’s multitude of crimes aimed at creating a white German nation. As such, applying the term “fascist” to the left is an attempt at connotation theft or an act of ignorance. This is most certainly not to claim that the left is without sin, simply that fascism is a sin of the right rather than the left.
The main defense against being deceived by connotation theft is to be aware of the factors that give a word its emotional power, such as its proper denotation and historical context. For example, when someone or some group is seriously accused of being fascist, one should consider carefully if the word truly applies or, as Orwell said, the word is just signifying something the speaker finds undesirable and hopes you will too.