Definition of Denotation

The denotation of a word is the actual definition of the word rather than the nuances of its meaning or the feelings it implies. The denotation of a word does not carry the associations, emotions, or attitudes that the word might have. The opposite concept is called connotation, which refers to those associations and nuances that a word carries. For example, the words “house” and “home” are synonyms in English and have the same denotation, i.e., a place where one lives. However, they have different connotations. “House” connotes the building itself and is a slightly colder word to use when referring to the place where one lives, whereas “home” has a warmer connotation and implies a more personal living space.

The word denotation comes from the Latin word denotationem, which means indication. It came into more frequent usage in English in 1843 when it was used as a word in logic.

Difference Between Denotation and Connotation

As stated above, the definition of denotation is the opposite of the definition of connotation, which refers to the associations and emotions that a word carries in a culture. The denotation of a word is what you can find in a dictionary entry about that word. In fact, this is a helpful way to remember which literary device is which: “denotation” starts with the same letter as “dictionary” and “definition.”

Common Examples of Denotation

Every word has a denotation. Here are more examples of the differences between the denotations and connotations of common words to illustrate what denotation means:

  • Pants versus trousers: In American English, pants and trousers have the same denotation. They both refer to the clothing that one wears on one’s legs. However, “trousers” sound like a much more formal item of clothing than “pants” (note that in British English “pants” actually refers to underwear and therefore has a different denotation than trousers).
  • Boss versus leader: While “boss” is not necessarily negative it still separates this person more definitively from his or her underlings than the word “leader.” “Leader” generally sounds more inspiring. Compare also the difference between “bossy” and “demanding.” Neither sounds particularly appealing, but “bossy” connotes more of an attitude that someone tells others what to do without reason, whereas a “demanding” person asks much of others but for a good reason.
  • Burden versus obligation: Both “burden” and “obligation” refer to something that a person must do. However, a burden is more onerous. A burden makes life difficult for the person who shoulders it, while an obligation may be simply what a person is required to do without resenting it.

Significance of Denotation in Literature

As every word has a denotation, the concept of denotation is ubiquitous in literature. The denotation of a word in literature is significant, however, when it differs from the connotation of that word. Authors may make very specific diction choices based on the denotations and connotations of words. The process of separating out the dictionary definition from the nuances and associations of a word asks the reader to do more critical thinking and therefore involves the reader more in the reading experience.

While every word has a definition, many philosophers and literary theorists question whether a word can ever really represent the thing it refers to. Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida were especially important in advancing the branch of literary and linguistic analysis that considers how we construct meaning out of words. They posited that the meanings of words are dependent on the meanings of other words, either in their similarities or in their differences. When we talk about the “literal definition” of a word we must use other words to define that original word, requiring the reader to conjure up those other words and their own definitions. For example, the definition of the simple word “cat” could be “a small, domesticated carnivorous mammal of the genus felis.” This definition requires the reader to understand the concepts of “domesticated,” “carnivorous,” “mammal,” and “genus.”

This is both problematic and interesting in that language is thus based on itself and its connection to real things is tenuous at best. Understanding language in a work of literature requires the reader to have a vast knowledge and experience of the world so as to understand both the denotations and connotations of the words used.

Examples of Denotation in Literature

Example #1

O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God!

(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

This famous quote from William Shakespeare’s tragedy shows Hamlet contemplating suicide for the first time. We know this from the word “self-slaughter,” yet Shakespeare starts the monologue with a more poetic phrasing of the concept. Hamlet speaks of a wish that “this too too solid flesh would melt.” The denotations of the words in this line don’t quite add up—flesh is not liquid and therefore cannot melt. This is a case in which the reader’s ability to understand the difference between the denotations and connotations of the words used leads to a new metaphorical way of thinking about death.

Example #2

“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!”
“Nor ever will, my child, I hope,” said Hester.
“And why not, mother?” asked Pearl, stopping short. . . . “Will it not come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?”

(The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

In this example of denotation, Hester Prynne’s daughter Pearl speaks about her “bosom.” Pearl is literally referring to the place on her mother’s dress where she must wear the scarlet letter A for “adulteress.” However, the connotation of the word “bosom” and their subsequent discussion also has a subtler and deeper meaning about the impossibility of women in that culture to not be shamed for becoming sexual beings.

Example #3

I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.

(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

This famous quote is spoken by Daisy, who is talking about her daughter. It is a quote that is often misunderstood because readers only look at the denotation of the word “fool.” Many readers assume that Daisy wishes her daughter to be foolish because that’s all that women can hope to achieve. Instead, Daisy is speaking from her own painful experience of not being a fool and being aware of the vast injustices of women’s lot in life. Only by being a fool would a woman remain ignorant of her substandard rights.

Example #4

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

In this denotation example, the character of Atticus Finch redefines the word “courage” for his children. Speaking against the popular belief that guns represent power and therefore courage, Atticus instead defines courage as the attempt to change things even knowing that there is no hope. This redefinition of the concept of courage shapes both the book and his children’s lives.

Example #5

With an inked brush he marked everything with its name: table, chair, clock, door, wall, bed, pan. He went to the corral and marked the animals and plants: cow, goat, pig, hen, cassava, caladium, banana. Little by little, studying the infinite possibilities of a loss of memory, he realized that the day might come when things would be recognized by their inscriptions but that no one would remember their use. Then he was more explicit. The sign that he hung on the neck of the cow was an exemplary proof of the way in which the inhabitants of Macondo were prepared to fight against loss of memory: “This is the cow. She must be milked every morning so that she will produce milk, and the milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee to make coffee and milk.” Thus they went on living in a reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters.

(One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez)

There is a very memorable subplot in One Hundred Years of Solitude in which the residents of the town of Macondo become “infected” with insomnia and begin to lose their memories. One of the main characters, Aureliano, fears that with the loss of memory the villagers will forget what things are called and what they are used for. This is an interesting example of the importance of denotation and how losing the definitions of words cuts off the ability of humans to interact with the world.

Test Your Knowledge of Denotation

1. Choose the correct denotation definition from the following statements:
A. The dictionary definition of a word.
B. The associations that a word carries in a culture.
C. The way of writing down a word.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″] Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. What is the denotation of the compound word “self-slaughter” in Example #1 above from Shakespeare’s Hamlet?
A. Being too hard on oneself
B. Shame
C. Suicide
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″] Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. How does the example above from Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude relate to the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida?
A. There is no relation between this example and their theories.
B. The character of Aureliano tries to fix names to their real objects but finally realizes the impossibility of the task when he realizes that the citizens will lose their knowledge of language and the words will just be arbitrary signs with no relation to the objects themselves.
C. Once Aureliano writes the names of objects on the actual objects he knows that human beings will never forget what those words mean.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″] Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]