Denotations and Connotations

Words' Denotative & Connotative Meanings

WordsOpens in new window have two types of meanings—denotative and connotative.

  • Denotative meaning only names the object without indicating its positive or negative qualities. Words like table, book, account, and meeting are denotative by nature.
  • Connotative meaning, on the other hand, contains qualitative judgments and personal reactions. Words like honest, competent, cheap, sincere, etc., are connotative by nature.

Denotative Meaning

The Denotative meaning of a word is the explicit, literal meaning that is stated in a dictionary and which is accepted at a given time by all the people who use the word.

Denotation, however, is not always that straightforward. The more denotations a word has, the greater the possibility for confusion when the word is used. Most dictionaries, for example, provide more than one meaning for the same word.

“Strike”, for instance, has at least three denotative meanings: workers go “on strike” to negotiate better working conditions. But we also “strike” a match or “strike” up the band. Truth is, you will find varied meanings for the word “strike” in a dictionary. To complicate matters, no two dictionaries will have the same meaning for abstract concepts such as “love” or “justice”.

Besides, the meanings that words trigger in people’s minds may change over time. If you had described someone as “gay” in the 1960s, everyone would have understood that you meant happy or cheerful.

In the millennium, today, “gay” is most often used as a synonym for “homosexual”. So, if you describe someone as “gay” when you mean happy or cheerful, you run the risk of creating communication gap. Our languageOpens in new window system is open to expansion and alteration. Words may lose old meanings and evolve new ones, sometimes as often as every year.

Important Hint! 

When you are addressing someone older or younger than yourself, it is important to find out whether the meaning each of you attaches to a word matches or misses the other’s meaning. The word gay, for example, is currently an acceptable term for “homosexual” and has all but shed its past meaning of “happy,” “bright,” or “merry.”

Consider how three audiences, one of young adults, one of seniors, and one of elementary school children, might interpret the following words and phrases: rap, the net, surfing, tool, chill, it’s brick. The emphasis is that definitions do not necessarily stay with words indefinitely, and because time can affect a word’s meaning, it is important for us to be aware of a word’s current meaning.

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Denotative Meanings of “Crop”

Verderber (1990) suggests that context has perhaps the most important effect on the denotation of a word. The position of a word in a sentence and the other words around it are likely to change the denotation. Wenburg & Wilmot (1973:93) provide the following example:

  • The stone struck in the bird’s crop.
  • She carried a riding crop in her hand.
  • The shepherd watched the sheep crop the grass.
  • The farmer reaped a crop of barley.
    A similar example is provided by Davidoff (1953:427 – own emphasis):
  • We never know the worth of water
    till the well is dry. — Thomas Fuller
  • The waters wear the stones. — Old Testament: Job XIV, 19
  • The mill cannot grind
    With the water that is past. — Sarah Doudney
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Words—based on the context—are capable of communicating a variety of meanings. It is quite possible that the receiver of the message does not assign the same meaning to a word as the transmitter had intended. This may lead to miscommunication. For example, for a law profession the word ‘action’ will naturally mean legal action; for the soldier it will mean a ‘military operation’.

The different specializations have given to some ordinary words a special significance. A simple word such as ‘step’ is not restricted only to the concrete structure outside your front door, or leading down to your lawn. For the aeronautical engineer, a step is part of the construction of the hull of a flying boat, designed purposely to help in take-off. For the sailor, or the civil engineer, the word has a verbal use—to place a mast or a lock gate in a vertical position. For the electronics engineer it can mean a radar pulse superimposed on a time-based trace.

Murphy and Pack mentioned in their book Effective Business Communication, that in an abridged dictionary, the word ‘run’ has 71 meanings as a verb, another 35 as a noun, and 4 more as an adjective. If this word occurs in a message, the receiver is at liberty to interpret it in any of the 110 senses. In this way, the same word may acquire a number of specialized meanings only one of which will be applicable in a given milieu. However, if communication is to be perfect, the receiver must assign to it the same meaning as existed in the sender’s mind when he used it.

Important Hint! 

To get the meaning of a word, consider the context, the author and his background. What does he intend the word to convey? If you use any such specific word in your writing, consider your reader and his chances of misinterpreting the term. If you think your reader will go astray, define the term for him.

Connotative Meaning

The Connotative meaning of a word generally cannot be found in a dictionary. Connotation is any other meaning a word suggests to an individual based on his or her background and past experiences.

Unlike denotative meaning, connotative meaning is much more subjective, personal, and contextual by nature. It refers to the emotions and evaluations that an individual associates with a word. It also may be influenced by an individual’s personal experience with a word and its referent.

Thus, if the person you are speaking with does not share the connotative meaning you have for a word, it becomes even more likely that a semantic barrierOpens in new window will ensue.

To put it in other words, our connotative meanings differ according to our feelings for the object, matter, or concept we are talking about. Research has proven that gender, for example, influences connotative meanings.

A 1970 study investigated male and female responses to sex-related words in an attempt to identify differences in response. Not surprisingly, it was found that women tend to respond much less favorably than men to words such as “wife swapping”, “husband swapping”, “whore” and “prostitute” (Tubbs & Moss 1991).

While denotation may affect meaning, an awareness of connotative meanings is essential if we are to avoid misunderstandings in our communication encounters. We need to be aware, for instance, that a particular word may evoke a positive connotation in one person, but a negative connotation in another.

Consider the word “communism”. According to a dictionary, its denotative meaning is a theory or system of social organization based on holding common property. However, for some people the word “communism” has the negative connotation of revolutionary threat and upheaval, whereas for others, the idea of common and shared property has a positive connotation.

Perhaps you should ask at least five people the meanings of the following words: “abortion”, “democracy”, “cancer”, “mother-in-law”, “AIDS”. Can you explain how the connotation changed according to their background and personal beliefs? Did gender play any role in the differences?

It is only from the context that we determine which meaning is to be assigned to a particular word. Because of different social, economic, cultural and educational backgrounds, people interpret even the context differently. The result is miscommunication.

A word can have as many connotations as there are people using it; in effect, connotative meanings are limitless. To understand just how limitless, take some time to explore the meanings that commonly used words such as college, tests, and athletes have for you and other people.

Our next discussion is Concrete and abstract wordsOpens in new window.

    This study is a series. See next page!
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