Conceptual Meaning

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Lt. Abbie Mills addressing Ichabod Crane
Lt. Abbie Mills addressing Ichabod Crane in "John Doe," an episode of the TV series Sleepy Hollow (2013).

In semantics, conceptual meaning is the literal or core sense of a word. Also called denotation or cognitive meaning. Contrast with connotation, affective meaning, and figurative meaning.

In Componential Analysis of Meaning, linguist Eugene A. Nida observed that conceptual meaning "consists of that set of necessary and sufficient conceptual features which make it possible for the speaker to separate the referential potentiality of any one lexical unit from that of any other unit which might tend to occupy part of the same semantic domain."

Conceptual meaning ("the central factor in linguistic communication") is one of the seven types of meaning identified by Geoffrey Leech in Semantics: The Study of Meaning (1981). The other six types of meaning discussed by Leech are connotative, social, affective, reflected, collocative, and thematic.

Examples and Observations

  • "Conceptual meaning may be defined as logical meaning, the meaning used to convey ideas in order to describe the world."
    (Andrew Goatly, Meaning and Humour. Cambridge University Press, 2012)
  • "It has long been acknowledged, and is indeed popularly assumed, that the major function of human language is that of expressing a conceptual content, of conveying information. . . . Utterances which have no ideational content are restricted to interjections like Ouch, Yippee, and Tally-ho, which, functionally, have more in common perhaps with animal communication than with the rest of human language."
    (Geoffrey N. Leech, Explorations in Semantics and Pragmatics. John Benjamins, 1980)

    Conceptual Meaning vs. Associative Meaning

    • "Conceptual meaning covers those basic, essential components of meaning that are conveyed by the literal use of a word. It is the type of meaning that dictionaries are designed to describe. Some of the basic components of a word like needle in English might include 'thin, sharp, steel instrument.' These components would be part of the conceptual meaning of needle. However, different people might have different associations or connotations attached to a word like needle. They might associate it with 'pain,' or 'illness,' or 'blood,' or 'drugs,' or 'thread,' or 'knitting,' or 'hard to find' (especially in a haystack). These types of associations are not treated as part of the word's conceptual meaning."
      (George Yule, The Study of Language, 5th ed. Cambridge University Press, 2014)

      Recognizing Word Boundaries

      • "If a group of language learners are shown three or four examples of a drinking vessel and told that each one is a 'cup,' they will quickly establish some of the features that constitute a 'cup' in English. . . . However, unlike a word such as 'sun' or 'moon,' which refers to a single fixed entity, 'cup' is relatively indeterminate in meaning. Subtle differences in material, shape or function are all sufficient for the object to cease being a cup (in English). Languages rarely divide up the world in exactly the same way, and so we should not be surprised if we find students using the word 'cup' to describe an object which is in fact a 'glass,' a 'mug,' or even a 'bowl.' Even students whose mother tongue categorises this group of objects in the same way as English, cannot be sure that this is the case until they have learnt it. To understand a word fully, therefore, a student must know not only what it refers to, but also where the boundaries are that separate it from words of related meaning." (Ruth Gairns and Stuart Redman, Working With Words: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Cambridge University Press, 1986)
      • The Lighter Side of Conceptual Meaning
        Violet Baudelaire: Sunny, how's that pot coming?
        Sunny: Voila!
        Klaus Baudelaire: Uh, Sunny, that's not a pot. That's a spitoon.
        Violet Baudelaire: A spitoon? You mean like . . . ?
        Klaus Baudelaire: [nods in disgust]
        Violet Baudelaire: We'll wash it twice.
        (Emily Browning, Kara Hoffman, and Liam Aiken in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, 2004)