Definition of Connotation

The connotation of a word refers to the emotional or cultural association with that word rather than its dictionary definition. The connotation definition is therefore not the explicit meaning of the word, but rather the meaning that the word implies.

Connotation comes from the Latin word “connotare,” which means, “to mark in addition.”

In some cases, connotation can also be similar to symbolism as it hinges on culturally-accepted meanings. For example, the connotation of a red rose is love and passion, and if an author were to refer to a red rose while talking about a relationship, the reader would understand that this connotation and symbolism was at play. However, there are many cases of connotation that don’t use symbolism, as shown below in the “Examples of Connotation in Common Speech” section.

Difference Between Connotation and Denotation

Connotation and denotation are opposite concepts. The denotation of a word is its literal meaning, whereas the connotation is an implicit meaning. As a mnemonic to remember the difference, it can be helpful to note that “denotation” and “dictionary definition” all start with the same letter.

Examples of Connotation in Common Speech

There are many words that can be understood as synonyms with the same definition, yet their connotations are notable different. For example:

  • “House” versus “Home”: Both words refer to the structure in which a person lives, yet “home” connotes more warmth and comfort, whereas “house” sounds colder and more distant.
  • “Cheap” versus “Affordable”: While both words mean that something does not cost a lot, “cheap” can also connote something that it not well-made or of low value, while “affordable” can refer to a quality item or service that happens to be well-priced.
  • “Riots” versus “Protests”: The difference between these two words is that “riots” connotes a violent gathering of people who are not necessarily in the right, while “protests” can have a more peaceful connotation and is often used when there is sympathy with the protesters.

The connotations of words can also change drastically from one culture to the next. For example, to call someone “fat” in some cultures is a huge insult, whereas in others, it connotes that the person is healthy and well-fed.

Significance of Connotation in Literature

Connotation plays a role in almost every type of communication, as it adds nuance and more subtle meaning. Authors use connotation to allow the readers to infer more meaning than there is explicitly written on the page, making the readers more active parts of the interpretive process.

Examples of Connotation in Literature

Example #1

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

(“Sonnet 130” by William Shakespeare)

In this famous sonnet, Shakespeare compares his lover unfavorably to many wonderful things. Shakespeare uses the sun, the coral, and the snow to connote beauty, love, and purity. By saying that his lover is not like any of these things, she carries none of their connotations. Therefore, she is not beautiful and certainly not pure or innocent.

Example #2

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

(“Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost)

This short poem by Robert Frost imagines the two possible apocalyptic scenarios, and which one he would prefer. There are clear connotations of passion and aggression Frost’s usage of fire imagery, while ice has the connotation of hard hatred. The world, in his imagination, will either burn up or freeze, and he doesn’t just mean in geological terms. Instead he places human emotion into the two concepts of fire and ice.

Example #3

How can I move thee? Will no entreaties cause thee to turn a favourable eye upon thy creature, who implores thy goodness and compassion? Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity: but am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow-creatures, who owe me nothing? they spurn and hate me.

(Frankenstein by Mary Shelley)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein plays with the concept of what can count as human and what is less than human. The word “creature” is used throughout the novel to refer to Frankenstein’s monster, something less than human. Yet in this excerpt, the monster uses the word “creature” as he addresses Frankenstein, the human scientist, and the rest of humanity. The connotation of creature is that this being deserves less empathy and less love than a “normal” human being. By calling Frankenstein and other humans “creatures,” Frankenstein’s monster levels the playing field and shows that he is as deserving as love as any other.

Example #4

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.

(Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison)

In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the concepts of invisibility, sight, and blindness take on great meaning. These are not just abstract concepts or basic physical descriptions, but instead indicative of society as a whole. Invisibility and blindness therefore take on very negative connotations, as they refer to the society’s inability and even unwillingness to see the narrator, a black man, as a real human being. This connotation example thus creates connotations where the reader might not have had them before; invisibility is not necessarily a negative concept in other contexts, yet Ellison elevates its negative connotation to be a central theme in the book.

Example #5

War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.

(1984 by George Orwell)

This example of connotation is interesting in that Orwell uses seeming contrasts to change the cultural connotations of each idea in the realm of his book. Each pair seems like opposites, and yet in the dystopic society of 1984, people are supposed to understand war as the only way of keeping peace, and ignorance as the only way to be strong. All of the things that would otherwise have positive connotations—peace, freedom, and strength—are reversed. War and ignorance take on positive connotations in this society, while freedom takes on a negative connotation. Note that, as a reader, you understand that these connotations are not actually true, but instead are a demonstration of the perversion of this society.

Test Your Knowledge of Connotation

1. What is the difference between the definition of connotation and the definition of denotation?
A. Connotation is the literal meaning of a word, while denotation is the figurative meaning.
B. Connotation is the implied meaning of a word and/or the emotional associations with it, while denotation is the dictionary definition.
C. Connotation is the positive association with a word, while denotation is the negative association with it.

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Consider the following excerpt of Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

What is the connotation for this group of words: “night,” “close of day,” “dying of the light,” and “dark”?

A. Death
B. Sadness
C. Nighttime

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]Answer: A is the correct answer. While they all explicitly refer to nighttime, the connotation of each is death.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following quote from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

Where we are,
There’s daggers in men’s smiles.

What is the connotation and denotation of the word “daggers”?
A. Connotation: anger; Denotation: murder
B. Connotation: knives; Denotation: fear
C. Connotation: danger; Denotation: pointed weapons

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]