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reflected meaning

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Definition:

In semantics, a phenomenon whereby a single word or phrase is associated with more than one meaning.

The term was coined by linguist Geoffrey Leech, who defined reflected meaning as "the meaning which arises in cases of multiple conceptual meaning, when one sense of a word forms part of our response to another sense. . . . One sense of a word seems to 'rub off' on another sense" (Semantics: The Study of Meaning, 1974).

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "In the case of reflected meaning, more than one meaning surfaces at the same time, so there is a kind of ambiguity. It is as if one or more unintended meanings were inevitably thrown back rather like light or sound reflected on a surface. For instance, if I use the medical expression chronic bronchitis, it is difficult for the more colloquial emotive meaning of chronic, 'bad,' not to intrude as well. . . . Sometimes, such coincidental, 'unwanted' meanings cause us to change a lexical item for another. Thus, if I think that dear in my dear old car may be misinterpreted as meaning 'expensive,' I can substitute 'lovely' and eliminate the potential ambiguity. . . .

    "Reflected meaning may be used deliberately. Newspaper headlines exploit it all the time:
    DISASTER TANKER ADRIFT IN A SEA OF BAFFLING QUESTIONS
    THE ZAMBIAN OIL INDUSTRY: NOT JUST A PIPE DREAM
    Naturally the success of such word play will depend on the standard of education, linguistic experience or mental agility of the readership."
    (Brian Mott, Introductory Semantics and Pragmatics for Spanish Learners of English. Universitat de Barcelona, 2009)


  • "An often-cited example of reflected meaning compares the connotative difference between the two synonyms 'Holy Spirit' and 'Holy Ghost' (see Leech, 1974, p. 19). Through homonymic association, the 'Ghost' part of 'Holy Ghost' is reminiscent of the reflected meaning of 'ghost' ('spook' or 'spectre'). Although such an association is not part of the literal meaning of 'Holy Ghost,' it has a tendency to form part of the overall meaning of the expression, and therefore may actually interfere with its literal meaning. By another, near homonymic, association, the 'Spirit' part of 'Holy Spirit' may call to mind the reflected meaning of 'spirits' ('alcoholic drinks'); here again, the association tends to interfere with the literal meaning."
    (Sándor G. J. Hervey, Ian Higgins, and Michael Loughridge, Thinking German Translation: A Course in Translation Method, German to English. Routledge, 2002)


  • "Perhaps a more everyday example [of reflected meaning] is 'intercourse,' which by reason of its frequent collocation with 'sexual' tends now to be avoided in other contexts."
    (Nigel Armstrong, Translation, Linguistics, Culture: A French-English Handbook. Multilingual Matters, 2005)


  • Reflected Meanings of Product Names
    "[S]uggestive [trademarks] are marks that call to mind--or suggest--an association related to the product they name. They imply strength or softness or freshness or flavor, depending on the product; they are subtle marks, created by marketers and ad people who are very skilled at making artful associations. Think of TORO lawn mowers, DOWNY fabric softener, IRISH SPRING deodorant soap, and ZESTA saltine crackers. None of these marks is obvious, but we perceive nonetheless the strength of TORO lawn mowers, the softness DOWNY fabric softener imparts to laundry, the fresh scent of IRISH SPRING soap, and the zesty taste of ZESTA saltines."
    (Lee Wilson, The Trademark Guide, 2nd ed. Allworth Press, 2004)


  • The Lighter Side of Reflected Meaning
    "A [baseball] player with an unfortunate name was pitcher Bob Blewett. He pitched five games for New York during the 1902 season. Blewett lost both of his decisions and gave up 39 hits in only 28 innings."
    (Floyd Conner, Baseball's Most Wanted II. Potomac Books, 2003)
Also Known As: coloring, contagion
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