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The other day I sighed after finishing a wonderful piece of chocolate cake. My friend asked why I sighed. Rather puzzled, I explained that the piece of cake she had given me was amazingly delicious and that my sigh was happy, satisfied sigh. She replied back that she always thinks of a sigh as having a negative connotation.

I told her that to me a sigh can be negative but it can also be positive meaning contentment after having completed something enjoyable (or even a task that was difficult and one sighs as a pleased sense of accomplishment). She disagreed and said that I was incorrect because a sigh is not usually associated with something positive.

When we looked up the official definition via several dictionaries, she looks to be correct about the word sigh being used with negative connotations (as in expressing relief, exasperation, disgust, etc.).

I'd be curious to hear as to whether anyone else thinks it's acceptable to use the word sigh to express a positive feeling.

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  • 1
    How about Macmillian? "a sigh of relief/pleasure/contentment/satisfaction: With a little sigh of pleasure, she sat up in bed and looked at the stunning view from her window." – Andrew Leach Nov 28 '15 at 13:32
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    Sigh! A sigh is a physical reaction, not a "word" per se. It means whatever the body was experiencing when it occurred. Using "sigh" in text, without some sort of qualification or contrary context, would normally be taken as a negative reaction to something, but one can either provide the qualification or use a parallel term such as "ahh!" if a positive meaning is intended. And in "spoken" English it means what it means. – Hot Licks Nov 28 '15 at 13:50
  • I would like to add an anecdote: To me, "Thanks a lot" is always sarcastic, even in spoken language. Your friend is probably experiencing something similar with sighs, as I can hear a difference between "contented" and "forlorn" sighs which, I might add, is the real issue here. – No Name Mar 15 '18 at 14:50
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Yes, definitely.

For one thing, you mention "relief" as being a negative connotation, but surely a sigh of relief is a good thing: if you're relieved about something, it's probably going well.

In the Cambridge English Dictionary, you can also find:

to ​breathe out ​slowly and ​noisily, ​expressing ​tiredness, ​sadness, ​pleasure, etc.

Finally, Google gives 18,000 results for the phrase "sigh with happiness" (including quotes).

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An often used expression is

a sigh of relief

Lots of references, usages on Google and Cambridge dictionary

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A sigh can be positive, but without verbal or gestural qualification to the contrary, a sigh ('a sudden, prolonged, deep and more or less audible respiration, following on a deep-drawn breath' - OED) usually indicates or expresses dejection, weariness, longing, pain, or relief.(OED)

I often sigh with contentment after finishing something delicious to eat or drink. I also sigh happily when, at last, I get to sit down having been on my feet for too long. In both cases I would usually qualify my sigh with a comment ("that was delicious" or "that feels better") - to reassure my companions that I was not unhappy or unwell!

  • Good observation. "sigh" on its own brings a negative connotation, but this is routinely reversed with an adjective - "sigh of contentment" being the the most obvious. I found it interesting that sigh of relief is by far the most common I could think of: books.google.com/ngrams/… – GreenAsJade Nov 29 '15 at 0:39
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You know I completely agree with you that there can be a sigh of satisfaction which I think is equivalent to the sigh of relief.......So,in my opinion a sigh can be positive as well.

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On it's own, a sigh denotes sorrow. Sort of by default.

To change the meaning, you'd have to qualify it. For example,

sigh of joy
happy sigh
sigh of delight
satisfied sigh

and so forth.

  • Yes, but all these are qualified sighs - to ensure that the inbuilt negative sense of 'sigh' (without qualification) does not confuse the intended message. – Dan Nov 28 '15 at 14:43
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    I wouldn't say sorrow is the default for a standalone "sigh". Definitely negative, but more like disappointment or frustration. Other than that, yes, there are many kinds of sighs, most of which are distinguishable when heard (but apparently not the OP's cake-happy sighs). In writing you might be able to get away without describing a sigh, if there is some context that gives a hint. The "default" connotation of sigh is not that strongly associated with it. – Peter Cordes Nov 29 '15 at 8:16
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The OED restricts a sigh's possible expressions to dejection, weariness, longing, pain, or relief. It says nothing about enjoyment (e.g. of a nice piece of cake) - unless relief covers the sensation in question i.e. from hunger.

All this does come as a slight surprise to me and I am wondering if it is something worth taking up with the OED. What do others think? I suppose the word that the responses to this post are suggesting might be added is contentment.

The OED's verbal meaning is very similarly expressed with emphasis on lamenting.

A sudden, prolonged, deep and more or less audible respiration, following on a deep-drawn breath, and esp. indicating or expressing dejection, weariness, longing, pain, or relief. (OED)

1

I sigh when I am happy. As if I needed something deeply and finally I have it – the joy of love and all positive things associated with it.

  • ELU likes longer answers with some documentation--not just opinion. – Xanne Jun 14 '17 at 20:52

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