Connotation and denotation

A friend and I had a lighthearted Facebook discussion this evening about the merits of being raised by hippies. After reading the thread, my aunt quickly jumped to my parents’ defense, asserting that they were never hippies, because hippies used drugs and neglected to bathe, and neither of my parents ever did either of those things.

While I will be the first to acknowledge that research is no substitute for experience, I’ve spent the past couple of decades studying the Vietnam era, and I’ve always been given to understand that the term “hippie” referred to a whole range of predominantly white countercultural groups with relatively diverse interests and habits (e.g., flower children, Weathermen, Jesus Freaks, back-to-the-landers, Yippies, et al.) whose primary commonalities were pacifist views, a tendency toward liberal politics, and a general distrust of the status quo.

Here are a few dictionaries’ takes on the term:

A member of a loosely knit, nonconformist group generally characterized by emphasis on universal love, withdrawal from conventional society, and a general rejection of its mores, especially regarding dress, personal appearance, and living habits. (American Heritage Dictionary, New College Edition, 1981)

a person, especially of the late 1960s, who rejected established institutions and values and sought spontaneity, direct personal relations expressing love, and expanded consciousness, often expressed externally in the wearing of casual, folksy clothing and of beads, headbands, used garments, etc. (, visited Feb. 13, 2012)

a usually young person who rejects the mores of established society (as by dressing unconventionally or favoring communal living) and advocates a nonviolent ethic; broadly : a long-haired unconventionally dressed young person (Merriam-Webster, visited Feb. 13, 2012)

Our conversation illustrated a couple of concepts I’ve discussed with my English students in class. The first is that while denotation — the literal meaning of a word — tends to be neutral, connotation can be either negative or positive and is largely dependent on the reader’s personal experiences and perceptions. The second is that English is a living language, and as such, it changes over time.

Example: While many respectable Baby Boomers — including my mom and my aunt — bristle at the word “hippie,” instantly associating it with negative stereotypes such as drug use and poor hygiene, their children and grandchildren tend to embrace it, associating it with more positive traits, such as nonviolence; concern for the environment; spiritual awareness; creativity; a strong social conscience; etc.

Given the tendency of Americans to romanticize history (as evidenced by the popularity of Renn fairs, Civil War re-enactments, 1950s-themed diners, and other sanitized versions of eras we should probably be grateful we missed), this shift in connotation isn’t particularly surprising — but I think it’s intriguing, and I’ll be interested in hearing my students’ theories on how and why it occurred.


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