If you know people with red hair, chances are you or someone have referred to them as “redheads.” But if you know people who have dark or black hair, I’ll be no one has ever referred to them as “blackheads.”
A redhead is a person with red hair; a blackhead is a particular form of unhealthy skin condition. The difference in usage is a matter of definition and no one would mix up the two words in conversation or writing.
Likewise, when I was a kid, if you said someone was “really gay,” you meant they were very cheerful and happy. If you say someone today is “really gay,” you PROBABLY would be referring to someone who was very publicly, openly homosexual. Which is a different issue than “redhead” and “blackhead.” The definition of “gay” still includes the concept of cheerful and happy — but the connotation of “gay” has been almost entirely preempted to mean homosexual.
Hence the importance of knowing a word’s connotation as well as its definition. If you get the definition right but the connotation wrong, your risking misunderstanding at the least, and you could even create ill will or lose readers because you miss the mark on a word’s connotation.
Language is such a wonderful tool. Be careful to use it wisely.
[tags]definition, connotation, word usage, writing tips at garyspeer.com[/tags]