Denotation - connotation

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Two useful words – and a useful distinction – in the discussion of meaning.

  • The denotation of a word is its basic meaning – the thing in the real world that it points to; the ‘thing’ for which it is a label in our speech. The denotation of “wood”, for example, is ‘a hard substance characteristically obtained from the trunks of trees’; the denotation of “Cottingham” is ‘a village on the north-west side of Hull’; the denotation of “Hull” is ‘a port city on the River Humber on the east coast of England’. (Geographers can make much better definitions than that.)

The denotation of a word is broadly speaking exactly the same for all competent speakers of a language. We all agree in knowing what a “university” is, even though we may argue about what it ought to be.

  • The same is not necessarily true of connotations. Connotations are the ‘extra’ meanings, often personal, that a word has for a speaker. Most humans give the word “mother” pleasurable and grateful connotations; but there are sad exceptions there.

The word “wine” will have different connotations for a devout Muslim (who is forbidden to drink it) and for a Catholic Christian priest (who is required to drink it in the ritual of his religion), although they will both give it exactly the same denotation. For both it denotes an alcoholic liquid made from fermented grape juice.