Words can carry dozens of different meanings depending on how they’re used, their context, and with whom you’re speaking. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the connotation (implicit meaning) behind the words you choose.
Sometimes, however, you might just be referring to a word’s literal or denotative meaning, the one that’s listed in the dictionary.
A word’s denotation is usually the same as its definition in the dictionary. It does not reflect the emotions or cultural notions that we often attach to words; instead, it represents only the word’s explicit meaning.
The word “hot,” for example, denotes a high degree of heat or a high temperature. In English slang, however, “hot” has become a common way to describe someone as attractive.
While this doesn’t mean that “hot” in this second sense is wrong, it represents the connotation of the word—not its denotation.
Denotation and Connotation
Connotation is the opposite of denotation. Whereas denotation denotes the dictionary definition of a word, connotation refers to the feeling or idea that a word invokes.
The connotation of a word can change between cultures and even with time. In general, connotations are classified as positive, negative, or neutral.
However, the denotation of a word is usually neutral, since it refers to its dictionary definition, and not to any cultural notions behind the word.
Below are ten examples of words with their literal definition (their denotative meaning) and their connotative meaning, or, the meaning we’ve attached to those words in our culture.
|Denotative Meaning||Connotative Meaning|
|Blue||The color blue||Sad, wary, depressed|
|Dog||Canine||Unpleasant man, ugly face|
|Home||House where one lives||Familiarity, comfort|
|Sunny||Bright, clear weather||Cheerful, happy|
|Bright||Reflecting light||Smart, intelligent|
|Cool||Low in temperature||Composed; fashionable|
|Rock||A stone||A solid, stable person; genre of music|
|Hip||Joint in the human body||Relevant, trendy, in style|
|Chick||A baby bird||A young girl (sometimes derogatory)|
You can see the difference between the denotative and connotative meanings clearly in the following sentences:
Her dress was a brilliant hue of blue. (Denotative)
Mary was feeling a little blue today after hearing the bad news. (Connotative)
I took my dog, Stella, for a walk today. (Denotative)
He’s such a dog! He can’t help himself from chasing new girls every week. (Connotative)
We recently bought a home in the north of Italy. (Denotative)
Home is wherever he was with her. (Connotative)
It’s a sunny day today; we should go to the beach! (Denotative)
She has such a sunny personality. (Connotative)
The room is nice and bright thanks to the large windows. (Denotative)
She’s a bright girl. Surely she’ll get into any school she wants. (Connotative)
It was a cool October evening. (Denotative)
Most kids don’t think their parents are cool. (Connotative)
He picked up the rock and threw it across the lake. (Denotative)
He was her rock; he always knew what to say to support her. (Connotative)
My aunt had to have her hip replaced last year. (Denotative)
Her taste in music is really hip. (Connotative)
The fluffy, yellow chicks were a cute sight on Easter. (Denotative)
Chick is rarely used to refer to women anymore. (Connotative)
The child ran to the playground excitedly. (Denotative)
Don’t be such a child, grow up! (Connotative)
Examples of Denotation in Literature
Below are several examples from literature that illustrate the difference between the denotative and connotative meanings behind words.
“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
In this poem, “wall” denotes a literal wall, but it is also symbolic for an emotional barrier between two people.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“Mother,” said little Pearl, “the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. . . . It will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!”
Here, “something on your bosom” denotes the letter “A” for “adulterer” that Hester has been forced to wear on her chest. Figuratively, however, it also refers to the shame women are forced to feel by Puritan society for their sexuality.
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
In this excerpt from Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “sleep” denotes its literal meaning, which is to rest and suspend bodily functions. However, if readers consider the connotative meaning, they would realize that “sleep” is also symbolic for death.
Why is Denotation Important?
When reading, it’s important to stop and look up any words that aren’t clear to you, because if you don’t understand a word’s denotation, it will be difficult to follow the text’s surface-level meaning.
If you can’t understand it on that level, you could miss important symbols and connotations that give deeper meaning to a piece of writing.
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