In a previous DWT post, Michael argues that there’s no such thing as a true synonym because a word’s connotation always colors its denotation.
Commenting on the article, a reader refuted Michael’s argument with the words peculation and embezzlement:
I have found one [an exception], and i dont know why it exists. Peculation; definition is “embezzlement” in other words peculation means embezzle embezzlement etc..so thus embezzlement and peculation are of identical meanings. Which makes no sense to me.
Technically, the words do mean the same thing: “taking money that belongs to someone else.” However, there is a useful distinction that many writers observe.
Embezzlement is used for the sneaky crime of a private citizen, while peculation applies to the act of misappropriation of money and contracts by persons in high places. Embezzlement is a crime against an employer; peculation is a betrayal of the public trust.
Ex-Macon teller pleads guilty in embezzlement
2 ex-Fort Peck employees guilty of embezzlement
every one of [the government] ministers has helped in tile work and is guilty of peculation on a gigantic scale…The second governorship of Clive was marked by … the enforcement of stringent regulations against the besetting sin of peculation.
Although the connotations of many words are the same for large numbers of readers, personal associations can color the way a listener or reader reacts to a given word. For example, for most people the word mother probably carries positive connotations of warmth and nurturing. For the child of an abusive or mentally-ill woman, however, the feelings stirred by the word mother might be negative. Apart from such personal associations, words acquire connotations for us as we encounter them in our reading.
Vocabulary acquired from wide reading brings connotation along with denotation.
denotation: The meaning or signification of a term.
connotation: That which is implied in a word in addition to its essential or primary meaning.
A failing of present day education is the practice of teaching vocabulary chiefly by means of word lists or “vocabulary books.” Vocabulary lists should be used for review; children can best acquire a lasting vocabulary by reading books like Treasure Island and A Tale of Two Cities. A sense of the connotation of words is developed by reading the words in a variety of contexts.