I was always fascinated by the word denizen as a child. It’s a word I, unsurprisingly, only ever encountered in writing, particularly in books leaning towards fantasy or science fiction. It was fascinating mainly because I assumed it had to have a very different meaning from citizen. Why else would the writer use the word, when they had the choice to use citizen?
I think the first time I saw denizen used was to refer to the people living in a dirty, noisy, crowded city. I therefore assumed the word had negative connotations, and referred generally to poor, dirty criminal residents of a city, which is what I seem to recall most of the residents of that particular fictional city were. I also had a sense that denizens lived underground, or at least in damp, dark places. This may be because the denizens of this city (I’ve no idea what book it was in by the way, but I seem to have an image in my head of a city in shadow by the sea) lived in such a place, or simply because that’s just the type of place where the poor residents of cities in young-adult fantasy novels live.
I think the sound of the word also prejudiced me against it. It just sounds more negative to me. Maybe because it sounds slightly like down, or because it makes me think of dark underground dens, and not bright, shining cities.
Over time, I began to notice it used more often in contexts where its meaning seemed more neutral, and I began to think it might not always be so negative. Maybe, I thought, based on how I saw it being used, it simply means resident, whereas citizen is a little more prestigious.
And of course, demonstrating how we pick up the meanings of almost all of the words in our vocabulary through noticing their meaning in context, I was absolutely right. Denizen simply means dweller in a particular place, whereas a citizen generally has particular rights, though of course we still often use citizen to simply refer to a dweller of a city.
And of course it’s no surprise that the words city and citizen are related. And naturally the word city came first, in English anyway. But both English words can trace their origins back to the Latin civis (townsman), and interestingly enough, this was not related to the Latin word for city (urbs). Only later did the word civitas begin to replace the word urbs, as Rome lost prestige.
Anyway, it all goes to prove my point that if you want to improve your vocabulary and learn the meanings of words, you’ve got to read. Plus, you know, it’s also fun too!