Word meanings have two parts. The denotation of a word is a factual definition that can be found in a dictionary. The connotation, on the other hand, is the definition plus any emotional and cultural associations that go along with it. A negative connotation is the language term for a connotation that has unpleasant or bad overtones.
A word with a negative connotation has emotional baggage. As the previous sentence shows, the connotation of a word can change based on its context or how it is used in a sentence. The words "emotional" and "baggage" do not necessarily have negative connotations on their own, but together they do have a negative connotation. For example, if someone is said to have emotional baggage, people may think that he or she is unstable or should seek counseling.
Socially, people agree that many words have either positive or negative connotations. Without this agreement on language people could not communicate very well. For example, most people will agree that the word "thrifty" has a positive association with the idea of a practical person who does not spend money needlessly. The word "cheap," on the other hand, has a negative connotation and is often seen as an insult. Like thrifty, however, cheap also describes someone who does not spend money lavishly, but it is usually associated with a miserly, stingy person.
Negative connotation can depend on individual perception as well. The word "snake" has negative connotations for many people since the fear of snakes is common. The mere mention of the word snake makes some people shudder; yet it is a delightful word to a herpetologist — a zoologist who specializes in the study of snakes. Individual perception of a word can become even more defined depending on the person’s experience and psychological makeup. If a person loses his or her life savings due to a financial advisor‘s shady investments, the term "financial advisor" may have a negative connotation for that person.
Writers, who often work their magic by making associations between words and images, must be very attentive to connotation and its impact. Literature and poems are written to elicit emotion. The writer’s focus on words and their context within a poem or novel help him or her to express both ideas and emotions. For example, a poet might write, “the squirrels bicker in the trees.” The negative connotation of the word "bicker" helps to create an image of how noisy and boisterous squirrels can be.