Understanding Connotations in Tag Lines, Business Names and MonikersThe following closer on an email was meant to clinch my interest in an information product, but it did the opposite:
"I would love for you to experience the same kind of worldwide notoriety my clients have enjoyed for years."
As a professional word person, I knew instantly that this expert had overlooked the negative meaning of "notoriety." But before jumping on her mistake, I checked my authoritative sources - dictionaries.
For "notorious," the American Heritage dictionary provides the definition "known widely and usually unfavorably," while the American College Dictionary has as a first definition "widely but unfavorably known." As synonyms for "notoriety," dictionary.com offers "disrepute, ill-repute, shame, infamy."
For certain audiences, especially those that are young, edgy or avant-garde, one can turn established meanings upside down to create a magnetic message. It's easy to imagine rock bands, movie stars or political activists for whom "notoriety" glitters as a goal.
But clearly this expert did not intend to claim that she helps her clients achieve an unfavorable worldwide reputation or to be held in widespread disrepute. And just as clearly, the fact that she misused this word implies she can't be trusted to formulate a winning message for someone seeking acclaim.
Blunders like this can turn up in company or product names, tag lines, monikers (clever nicknames) and in marketing copy.
Very often, people crafting a marketing piece get tired of using the obvious words for their situation and reach for synonyms. To avoid writing "fame" - a simple, direct and ordinary word - this expert used (actually, misused) the more complex word "notoriety." People also get tripped up by connotation when they fall in love with the way something sounds.
For instance, I once thought up the moniker "Grand Poohbah of Publicity. " I loved its combination of sounds. However, when I looked it up, I discovered definitions like this one, in the Free Online Dictionary: "A pompous ostentatious official, especially one who, holding many offices, fulfills none of them." "Poohbah" comes from Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera, The Mikado, where Pooh-Bah was a haughty character who held the offices Lord Chief Justice, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Master of the Buckhounds, Lord High Auditor, Groom of the Back Stairs, and Lord High Everything Else. Oops, I certainly do not want to come across that way!
Whether you rely on memory or use a thesaurus to jog your consideration of related words, you must always, always take one more step and look up the official meaning of fancier or less common words. If you are aiming at a positive message and you see a negative connotation in any of the definitions, that indicates a high risk of an unintended negative message.
Even if several definitions are positive, one negative definition spoils the word's potential, the same way one rotten tomato mixed with fresh ones ruins a sauce.
The discipline of looking up words not only prevents communication disasters, over time it increases your command of the language. Instead of fighting what words mean to your audience, you increase your ability to nail a thought or idea in powerful names, sentences, nicknames or slogans.