Is there a single word to describe a word that has the same literal meaning, but is opposite in connotation to another word? In other words, what is to connotation as antonym is to denotation?

To clarify, I mean "connotation" in the simplest possible way, such as this Wikipedia quote:

A connotation is frequently described as either positive or negative, with regard to its pleasing or displeasing emotional connection.

Suppose I have some connotative words with generally accepted synonyms (in a given sense) with opposite connotations (in this pleasing/displeasing emotional connection sense):

  • cheap and affordable, meaning "not expensive": typically affordable would be "inexpensive in a positive way" and cheap might be "inexpensive in a negative way"
  • famous and notorious, meaning "not obscure": to say notorious evokes a negative connotation, while famous evokes a positive connotation

Is there a word to describe this relationship between famous and notorious, cheap and affordable?

In a sentence: "Our product is not expensive, but could you find a ____ [word of opposite connotation] to cheap? Maybe affordable would leave a more positive impression."

A different context: "He is definitely known, but I wouldn't say famous; to use a ____ [word of opposite connotation], you could say he is notorious."

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    – tchrist
    Aug 16, 2018 at 13:28

3 Answers 3


You're looking for "Emotive Conjugation" (also commonly referred to as "Russel Conjugation") — it's best described with examples. I'll borrow directly from the philosopher Bertrand Russell who gave a few examples on BBC Radio in the '40s.

One example he gave was:

I have reconsidered the matter, you have changed your mind, he has gone back on his word.

In this example, the three phrases have synonymic denotation.

  1. reconsidered the matter
  2. changed your mind
  3. gone back on your word

The first phrase conveys positive emotion, the second conveys neutral emotion, and the third conveys negative emotion. Although phrase 1 and 3 are synonyms, their connotations are antonymic.

Here's a link to a piece on the topic: https://www.edge.org/response-detail/27181

Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotive_conjugation

  • 1
    Can you link to a reference?
    – JJJ
    Aug 9, 2019 at 11:04
  • 1
    Absolutely. I just added two links for reference.
    – jackxci
    Aug 9, 2019 at 21:57

It's still an antonym.

antonym noun A word opposite in meaning to another (e.g. bad and good). - ODO

The problem with this definition is that there can often be multiple senses in which a word has an opposite. When finding antonyms, one needs to know the sense that is being negated.

Consider the following quote, the first sentence of which is very famous:

The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies. To be in the window and watch people being sent to concentration camps or being attacked in the street and do nothing, that's being dead. - Eliezer "Elie" Wiesel, attributed in Wikipedia to a quote on US News & World Report

One might say that love and hate are most definitely opposites, and even cite dictionary entries to prove it. However, the quality or sense that Wiesel brings out is the connotation of life in love and the opposite connotation of death before actually dying (in the sense of a loss of the will to live) in indifference. Hate doesn't carry the same opposite connotation, and is therefore rejected as a suitable antonym in this context.

In the case of your cheap vs affordable example, the connotation of cheap that you're interested in is negative impression. Negating this connotation produces positive impression, for which affordable is a fair choice.

Context-free antonyms are a troublesome lot, and it is particularly important to provide context where the sense being negated is nuanced - such as with connotations. So instead of saying that "affordable" is simply an antonym of "cheap", you could say that they are antonyms where impression is concerned.

The upshot of all this, though, is that even though you need to provide context, the relationship between the two words is still one of antonyms.

Now, the heart of your question is that you're looking for a word that you could apply to "cheap" to elicit the word "affordable". Terms such as alternative work, but in a hit-and-miss fashion. The main issue is that the "negative impression" aspect doesn't make up a large chunk of the concept that comes to mind when someone says the word "cheap". We can fairly confidently generalise that to any time that we want to tweak a nuance and come up with a different word. If you need to explain yourself to make someone understand the nuance you're referring to, it would be very unlikely to apply a single-word modifier to your original word to accomplish the tweak.

  • I like the analysis, but would be inclined to conclude from it that "there is no such single word," as the need to specify the sense of "connotation" precludes use of antonym as a single word replacement for the concept. In practice, I'm struggling to formulate a query that would return "affordable" as a result to "cheap ___", while "cheap antonym" returns acceptable opposites in the denotational sense, and "cheap synonym" returns synonyms with both positive, negative, and neutral connotations. Queries aside, I would also like to be able to succintly convey the intent in conversation, too. Aug 15, 2018 at 13:33
  • @MikkoMarttila I think a big part of the issue with that particular example is that "negative impression" isn't a large chunk of the total concept brought to mind by the word "cheap". As such, you'd always need to specify what in particular you're trying to negate. I'll update my answer with that perspective.
    – Lawrence
    Aug 15, 2018 at 14:09
  • cheap v. inexpensive as opposed to cheap v. shoddy. The way to refer to this is saying different meanings of a word. It is those different meanings that have antonyms or not. Not "the word". And I think Lawrence has pretty much said this. And I'd forget connotation and denotation. You're really talking about meanings of a word.
    – Lambie
    Aug 15, 2018 at 16:50
  • @Lambie I'm specifically looking for a way to distinguish between an antonym in denotation (the "literal meaning") and an antonym in connotation (as in general "feeling" of the word, positive/negative undertone). Clearly my question is still not clear, I'll reword it later. Aug 16, 2018 at 14:17
  • @ubihatt No, that’s not grammatical.
    – Lawrence
    Aug 18, 2018 at 23:09

There is a pair of terms that together roughly do the job: euphemism and dysphemism. Which of the two will be used, of course, depends on whether the connotation (in the sense of connotation that the OP has in mind) is more positive or more negative than the connotation of the term that the euphemism/dyphemism replaces.

(A lot can be said about different kinds of euphemisms and dysphemisms, and some of them may not be what this question is about, which is why I say that these terms only roughly do the job.)

If the OP insists on one word, then the question can be reformulated as: what is the hypernym for euphemism and dysphemism? The answer to that question is, I believe, that there isn't one that would be readily understood.

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