Connotation and Denotation

Commonly Confused Words

hillbilly
Look up the word hillbilly in a dictionary to find out its denotations. Then identify the connotations that you associate with the word hillbilly. (Richard Ellis/Getty Images)

The nouns denotation and connotation both have to do with the meanings of words, but denotative meaning isn't quite the same as connotative meaning.

Definitions

The noun denotation refers to the direct or explicit meaning of a word or phrase--that is, its dictionary definition. Verb: denote. Adjective: denotative.

The noun connotation refers to the implied meaning or association of a word or phrase apart from the thing it explicitly identifies.

A connotation can be positive or negative. Verb: connote. Adjective: connotative.

See the usage notes below. Also see:

 

Examples

  • "The southern accent was the primary identifying mark of the hillbilly; the term has a definite regional connotation. . . . The term also suggested that those to whom it was applied had a rural origin; this connotation persists in later descriptions of the hillbillies. Most important, it had a definite class connotation."
    (Lewis M. Killian, White Southerners, rev. ed. University of Massachusetts Press, 1985)

     
  • "You do realize that saying 'we need to talk' to your girlfriend has ominous  connotations?"
    (Kay Panabaker as Daphne Powell in the television program No Ordinary Family, 2011)
     
  • "The denotation of a word is its prescribed, dictionary-type definition. For example, the sentence you just read gives you the denotation of the word denotation, because it told you its definition."
    (David Rush, A Student Guide to Play Analysis. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005)
     

    Usage Notes
     

    • The Relative Weight of Denotative and Connotative Meanings
      "Individual words vary considerably in the relative weight of their denotative and connotative meanings. Most technical terms, for example, have very little connotation. That is their virtue: they denote an entity or concept precisely and unambiguously without the possible confusion engendered by fringe meanings: diode, spinnaker, cosine. We may think of such words as small and compact--all nucleus, so to speak. . . .

      "Connotation looms larger than denotation in other cases. Some words have large and diffuse meanings. What matters is their secondary or suggestive meanings, not their relatively unimportant denotations. The expression old-fashioned, for instance, hauls a heavy load of connotations. It denotes 'belonging to, or characteristic of, the past.' But far more important than that central meaning is the connotation, or rather two quite different connotations, that have gathered about the nucleus: (1) 'valuable, worthy of honor and emulation' and (2) 'foolish, ridiculous, out-of-date; to be avoided.' With such words the large outer, or connotative, circle is significant; the nucleus small and insignificant."
      (Thomas S. Kane, The New Oxford Guide to Writing. Oxford University Press, 1988)

       
    • Connotation and Context
      "'Denotation' tends to be described as the definitionalliteral, obvious or common-sense meaning of a sign. In the case of linguistic signs, the denotative meaning is what the dictionary attempts to provide. . . . The term 'connotation' is used to refer to the socio-cultural and 'personal' associations (ideological, emotional, etc.) of the sign. These are typically related to the interpreter's class, age, gender, ethnicity and so on. Connotation is thus context-dependent."
      (Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2007)

       
    • Complications
      "The distinction between denotation and connotation was important in literary criticism and theory from the 1930s to the 1970s. The denotation of a word or phrase is its literal or obvious meaning or reference as specified in a dictionary; the connotations of a word or phrase are the secondary or associated significances that it commonly suggests or implies. This distinction is complicated in practice because many words have more than one denotation and because dictionaries sometimes include definitions of a word based on connotation as well as denotation. E.g., the first set of definitions of the word rose given by the OED tells us that a rose is both 'a well-known beautiful and fragrant flower' and 'a rose-plant, rose-bush, or rose-tree'; in addition, the OED gives a number of 'allusive, emblematic, or figurative uses' (e.g., 'a bed of roses' or 'under the rose') that reveal the huge store of cultural connotations associated with the flower."
      (T. Furniss, "Connotation and Denotation." The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed.. edited by Stephen Cushman et al, Princeton University Press, 2012)

       

      Practice
       

      (a) "There is a human sense that an agreement--almost any agreement--will bring peace, but also a fear that it will compromise the national sovereignty. Negotiation with another nation may carry the positive _____ of overcoming conflict but also the negative_____ of betraying loyalties."
      (John H. Barton, The Politics of Peace. Stanford University Press, 1981)


      (b) "The _____ of the word skinny is quite similar in definition to the word slim; however, when students are asked whether they would prefer to be called skinny or slim they usually answer slim."
      (Vicki L. Cohen and John Edwin Cowen, Literacy for Children in an Information Age: Teaching Reading, Writing, and Thinking. Thomson Wadsworth, 2008)

      Answers to Practice Exercises

      Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

      Answers to Practice Exercises: connotation and denotation

      (a) (a) "There is a human sense that an agreement--almost any agreement--will bring peace, but also a fear that it will compromise the national sovereignty. Negotiation with another nation may carry the positive connotation of overcoming conflict but also the negative connotation of betraying loyalties."
      (John H. Barton, The Politics of Peace.

      Stanford University Press, 1981)


      (b) "The denotation of the word skinny is quite similar in definition to the word slim; however, when students are asked whether they would prefer to be called skinny or slim they usually answer slim."
      (Vicki L. Cohen and John Edwin Cowen, Literacy for Children in an Information Age: Teaching Reading, Writing, and Thinking. Thomson Wadsworth, 2008)

       

      Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words