All words have explicit dictionary meanings—denotations—as well as associated meanings—connotations. Often these connotations are cultural. For example, a color, such as white, may connote purity in one culture and yet be the color of death in another.
It’s important to be certain what connotations words carry. Words you may see as synonyms may have either positive or negative connotations, depending on the context and the culture. For example, the word odor may be seen as positive, negative, or neutral. But if you’re looking for synonyms, check this list and see if some of them might not work for you. When in doubt, look up words in the dictionary to see if a word might have a connotation you weren’t aware of and don’t want. When writing a poem to your love and seeking to focus on how wonderful that person smells, it might be better to stick away from stench and reek.
English: Cover of The Country Gentleman magazine, April 20, 1918 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“Gentleman” is not a synonym for just any man or male. It specifically refers to a noble or at least an honorable man, not just any human with XY chromosomes. And yet a day rarely passes that I don’t hear this word misused:
“The driver was clocked at 80 mph in the residential neighborhood and finally came to a stop when he crashed into a brick wall. The gentleman exited the vehicle and was placed under arrest.”
“The gentleman exited the vehicle.” (How about “The driver/man got out of the car”?) Chances are someone who endangers people by driving recklessly is no gentleman.
Similarly, “lady” is also misused in a parallel way, although not as frequently. There is a difference between “lady,” “woman” and “female.” Words have connotations that directly affect your writing.
As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Aim for lightning.