Multiple-Meaning Words: Connotation and Denotation

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Denotation is the act of using a word or symbol to signify an explicit meaning or set of meanings. The particular meaning of a word or symbol is its denotation. Connotation, on the other hand, is an idea expressed by a word in addition to its main meaning.
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Connotation and Denotation
Connotation and Denotation
Connotation and Denotation are two principal methods of describing the meanings of
words. Connotation refers to the wide array of positive and negative associations that
most words naturally carry with them, whereas denotation is the precise, literal definition
of a word that might be found in a dictionary.
Cars of the 1960’s
Thunderbird, Falcon, Charger, Comet, Mustang, Barracuda.
Cars of the 1970’s
Rabbit, Pinto, Colt, Civic, Starlet, Gremlin.
Introduce the idea of connotation, defining it as the associations that people make with a
word. You can contrast connotation with the denotative value of a word, its more literal
meaning, and give an example of a word (such as "chicken")
Connotation is the emotional and Denotation is the strict
imaginative association surrounding a word. dictionary meaning of a word.
Visiting Seema Srivastava’s Argumentative Writing class recently, I witnessed a very useful
exercise for teaching students the difference between connotation and denotation. Under the
rubric of teaching students about Pathos, or appeal to emotion, in the Aristotelian
Pathos/Ethos/Logos triangle, she briefly described denotation as the literal meaning and
connotation as the emotional weight of a word, comparing cheap to inexpensive as an example.
She noted that non-native speakers often have difficulty with connotation, while native speakers
may use the words appropriately though unconsciously. She then presented students the
following groups of words and asked them to rank the words in order from positive to negative.
Group 1
Thin, slim, lanky, skinny, gaunt, slender
Group 2
Aggressive, assertive, domineering, dynamic, pushy, forceful
Group 3
Shrewd, egghead, bright, clever, brilliant, cunning, smart, intelligent, brainy
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Connotation and Denotation
Connotation and denotation are not two separate things/signs. They are two aspects/
elements of a sign, and the connotative meanings of a word exist together with
the denotative meanings].
− Connotation represents the various social overtones, cultural implications, or emotional
meanings associated with a sign.
− Denotation represents the explicit or referential meaning of a sign. Denotation
refers to the literal meaning of a word, the ‘dictionary definition.’
For example, the name ‘Hollywood’ connotes such things as glitz, glamour, tinsel,
celebrity, and dreams of stardom. In the same time, the name ‘Hollywood’ denotes an
area of Los Angeles, worldwide known as the center of the American movie industry.
Diction, an element of style, refers to the words writers use to express ideas. Words
convey more than exact, literal meanings, in which case they "connote" or suggest
additional meanings and values not expressed in general dictionary definitions. Words
that "denote" a core meaning are those that are generally used and understood by the
users and the audience to represent an object or class of objects, an act, a quality, or
an idea. However, because of usage over time, words that denote approximately the
same thing may acquire additional meanings, or connotations, that are either positive
(meliorative ) or negative (pejorative ). Consider the changes undergone by these words
in the 20th century: liberal, diversity, team player, right wing, follower, gay, minority,
feminist, left wing, abuse, conservative, motherhood, extremist, rights, relationship,
harassment, family, propaganda, peacekeeper, and comrade.
drug addict . . . druggie, drug fiend, substance abuser
handicapped . . . crippled, disabled, differently abled
horse . . . . . . steed, nag, plug
house . . . . . . home, abode, domicile, residence
thin . . . . . . thin, slender, slim, skinny, lean, beanpole
attractive . . . pretty, beautiful, handsome, fair
reporter . . . . journalist, broadcaster, newshound
unattractive . . plain, dull, ugly
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Connotation and Denotation
• The media were swarming around the pileup on the innerbelt to capture every
conceivable injury for the evening news.
• The journalists were on the scene at the innerbelt crash to document the incident for the
evening news.
• Photographers stood patiently along the walkway, awaiting the arrival of the Oscar
• The paparazzi lined the walkway anxiously poised to snap the Oscar nominees.
• America's Midwest is often referred to as the heartland by Washington congressmen.
• America's Midwest is often referred to as flyover country by DC politicos.
Words have both denotations (literal meanings) and connotations (suggestive meanings).
Fungus is a scientific term denoting a certain kind of natural growth, but the word also has
certain connotations of disease and ugliness.
Connotations can be both positive and negative; for example, lady carries a hint of both elegance
and subservience. The influence of connotative meaning can also change the denotative meaning,
one example being the thoroughly transformed word gay.
• Denotation refers to the literal meaning of a word, the "dictionary definition."¨ For
example, if you look up the word snake in a dictionary, you will discover that one
of its denotative meanings is "any of numerous scaly, legless, sometimes
venomous reptiles having a long, tapering, cylindrical body and found in most
tropical and temperate regions."
• Connotation, on the other hand, refers to the associations that are connected to
a certain word or the emotional suggestions related to that word. The
connotative meanings of a word exist together with the denotative meanings.
The connotations for the word snake could include evil or danger.
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Connotation and Denotation
Denotation is when you mean what you say, literally. Connotation is created when you mean
something else, something that might be initially hidden. The connotative meaning of a word is
based on implication, or shared emotional association with a word. Greasy is a completely
innocent word: Some things, like car engines, need to be greasy. But greasy contains negative
associations for most people, whether they are talking about food or about people. Often there
are many words that denote approximately the same thing, but their connotations are very
different. Innocent and genuine both denote an absence of corruption, but the connotations of
the two words are different: innocent is often associated with a lack of experience, whereas
genuine is not. Connotations are important in poetry because poets use them to further develop
or complicate a poem's meaning.
You may live in a house, but we live in a home.
If you were to look up the words house and home in a dictionary, you would find that both words
have approximately the same meaning- "a dwelling place." However, the speaker in the sentence
above suggests that home has an additional meaning. Aside from the strict dictionary definition,
or denotation, many people associate such things as comfort, love, security, or privacy with a
home but do not necessarily make the same associations with a house. What is the first thing that
comes to your mind when you think of a home? of a house? Why do you think that real-estate
advertisers use the word home more frequently than house? The various feelings, images, and
memories that surround a word make up its connotation. Although both house and home have
the same denotation, or dictionary meaning, home also has many connotations.
Read the following sentences. Type in all your answers (ten) for this page on the answer sheet,
and then send it in to Mrs. Dowling!
o Annette was surprised.
o Annette was amazed.
o Annette was astonished.
1. What is the general meaning of each of the three sentences about Annette? Do the
words surprised, amazed, and astonished have approximately the same
2. What additional meanings are suggested by astonish? Would one be more likely
to be surprised or astonished at seeing a ghost?
3. Which word in each pair below has the more favorable connotation to you?
o thrifty-penny-pinching
o pushy-aggressive
o politician-statesman
o chef-cook
o slender-skinny
Since everyone reacts emotionally to certain words, writers often deliberately
select words that they think will influence your reactions and appeal to your
emotions. Read the dictionary definition below.
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Connotation and Denotation
Definitions and Concepts in Critical Thinking
Understanding the difference between denotation and connotation is important to understanding
definitions and how concepts are used. Unfortunately, that is complicated by the fact that these
terms can be used in two different ways: grammatical and logical. Even worse, both uses are
worth keeping in mind and both uses are relevant to project of logical, critical thinking.
In grammar, a word’s denotation is whatever the word directly refers to, roughly equivalent to its
lexical definition. Thus, the word “atheist” denotes a person who disbelieves in or denies the
existence of gods. A word’s connotation refers to any subtle nuances that might or might not be
intended by its use. For example, one possible connotation for the word “atheist” might be
someone who is immoral and wicked, depending upon who is doing the speaking or listening.
Separating grammatical denotation from connotation is important because while one might
assume that a word’s denotation is fully intended, whether a word’s connotations are intended is
much more difficult to determine. Connotations are often emotional in nature, and thus if they
are intended, it may be for the purpose of swaying a person’s emotional reactions rather than the
logical evaluation of an argument.
If there are misunderstandings about how a person is using a word in a particular debate, a
primary source of that misunderstanding might lie in the word’s connotations: people might be
seeing something not intended or the speaker may be intending something people don’t see. In
constructing your own arguments, it’s a good idea not merely to look at what your words denote,
but also what they connote.
The relationship between words and meanings is extremely complicated, and belongs to the field
of semantics. For now, though, what you need to know is that words do not have single, simple
meanings. Traditionally, grammarians have referred to the meanings of words in two parts:
a literal meaning of the word
an association (emotional or otherwise) which the word evokes
For example, both "woman" and "chick" have the denotation "adult female" in North American
society, but "chick" has somewhat negative connotations, while "woman" is neutral.
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Connotation and Denotation
For another example of connotations, consider the following:
negative There are over 2,000 vagrants in the city.
neutral There are over 2,000 people with no fixed address in the city.
positive There are over 2,000 homeless in the city.
All three of these expressions refer to exactly the same people, but they will invoke different
associations in the reader's mind: a "vagrant" is a public nuisance while a "homeless" person is a
worthy object of pity and charity. Presumably, someone writing an editorial in support of a new
shelter would use the positive form, while someone writing an editorial in support of anti-
loitering laws would use the negative form.
In this case, the dry legal expression "with no fixed address" quite deliberately avoids most of
the positive or negative associations of the other two terms -- a legal specialist will try to avoid
connotative language altogether when writing legislation, often resorting to archaic Latin or
French terms which are not a part of ordinary spoken English, and thus, relatively free of strong
emotional associations.
Many of the most obvious changes in the English language over the past few decades have had
to do with the connotations of words which refer to groups of people. Since the 1950's, words
like "Negro" and "crippled" have acquired strong negative connotations, and have been replaced
either by words with neutral connotations (ie "black," "handicapped") or by words with
deliberately positive connotations (ie "African-Canadian," "differently-abled").
“I know what you said, but what did you mean?”
Language meaning is continually shifting, is always contextual, and is influenced by historical,
cultural, and economic factors. For instance, terms that were used years ago such as gangster and
thug denoted (that is, specifically referred to or explicitly meant) individuals involved in
criminal activities, who were prone to violence, and who had general disregard for laws and
social order. Also, particularly during the Depression era, gangsters and thugs were associated
with male immigrants from Italy, Ireland, and other European countries. However, today’s
gangsters and thugs are associated with African-American males, and the terms are used to
connote (that is, suggest or imply) that these individuals are concerned with accumulating
material wealth, are hyper-sexual, and are threats to middle-class suburban folks. The terms also
suggest a particular urban ethic and a particular cultural cachet that far transcend the original
suggestion of criminal activity. Just think of the category of “gangster rap,” a musical genre that
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Connotation and Denotation
practitioners have argued captures the “truth” of the black, urban male experience. The terms
thug and gangster have also become prevalent all across youth culture, designating clothing
styles, postures, attitudes, values, etc. and spawning a vast array of related terms. Much has
changed since the 30s, and these changes are reflected in language as demonstrated by the above
House vs. home; kill vs murder; religion vs faith;
Connotation and Denotation
The connotation of some words—or the attitudes we associate with them—can easily be seen when we
examine pairs of words that are essentially similar in meaning, but different in the favorable or
unfavorable attitudes they evoke in most people. Listed below are ten pairs of words that evoke negative
or positive feelings. For each pair, place a plus sign after the word that conveys a more favorable attitude
and a minus sign after the word that carries a less favorable attitude.
• refreshing – chilly
• plain – natural
• clever – sly
• cackle – giggle
• snob – cultured
• cop – officer
• skinny – slender
• statesman – politician
• smile – smirk
• domineering – assertive
Now, come up with some word pairs of your own:
Denotative language is factual; connotative carries emotional overtones
A recipe is denotative; an advertisement connotative
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Connotation and Denotation
Loaded Words: Using Denotation and Connotation
Directions: Read each list of words below. Each word has a different connotation, but has the
same general denotation. Decide what the general denotation is for each group. Write your
answer on the line provided. Then, number the words in each group from most positive
connotation to most negative connotation.
___ imprison
___ relocate
___ incarcerate
3. thin
___ intern
4. bony
___ evacuate
1. slim
___ detain
5. anorexic
___ lock-up
2. slender
___ confine
____thin____ (general denotation)
____________ (general denotation)
___ uprising
___ prisoner
___ riot
___ evacuee
___ demonstration
___ internee
___ unlawful gathering
___ detainee
___ protest
___ inmate
___ disturbance
____________ (general denotation)
____________ (general denotation)
___internment camps
___ guerilla ___detention camps
___ freedom fighter ___assembly centers
___ mercenary ___concentration camps
___ soldier ___prison camps
___ terrorist ___relocation centers
___temporary detention centers
____________ (general denotation)
____________ (general denotation)