Denotation is the literal definition of a word. It is the meaning that’s most commonly found in dictionaries and other academic sources. Denotation is commonly paired with its opposite, connotation. To understand one it is helpful to understand the other.
Denotation or Connotation
In contrast to denotation, connotation is the metaphorical or symbolic meaning of a word. It is not that which is found in a dictionary but that which often enters into one’s mind when the word is read or described. It is associated with figurative language and literary devices. Metaphors and similes, as well as puns, hyperboles, and more, are often part of a word’s connotative meaning. Connotations are important in all forms of writing but mostly in fiction and poetry.
Why Do Writers Use Denotation?
Writers use the denotative meaning of a word when they want a reader to see the word as it is, without the use of figurative language. It is used when the writer wants to be exacting in what they describe and make sure the reader knows that they aren’t using an object as a symbol for something else but truly as the object it appears to be.
Denotation is also used in a different way. A writer might go against the denotative mining of a word in order to create something new or something that seems original. By using a word in contrast to its dictionary definition a reader should be caught off guard. They are asked to think more deeply about what the implications are for the word being used.
Examples of Denotation
- She spent the night in a venerable hut in the woods. (Old cabin)
- They were in a rush to get back to their home. (Family)
- It was only after growing up that she became adventurous. (Courageous)
- The orange is very orange. (Color)
- Our couch is very comfortable. (Soft)
- Their dog is rambunctious. (High energy)
Examples of Denotation in Literature
Example #1 Daffodils by William Wordsworth
This poem, which is also known as ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,’ provides readers with a great example of denotation. Within the lines of the text, the speaker describes the “golden daffodils” and how they were found “Beside the lake”. Here are the lines from this section of the poem:
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
It’s obvious to us that the daffodils are golden in color and are growing next to the lake. The phrase “beneath the trees” is another good example. It tells us that the daffodils are not below the trees but under them, growing in their shade.
Example #2 Fire and Ice by Robert Frost
In the short lines of this poem, the poet uses denotation in order to describe clearly for the reader the imagery that he’s imagining. Consider these lines:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice …
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice […]
Here, the poet uses clear words like “hate,” “destruction, “ice” and “fire” in order to describe the world and the end that he’s thinking of. There is also a good example with the words “some say” which denotes a specific group.
Example #3 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In this wonderful novel, there are numerous examples of denotation that make the text and it’s meaning more impactful. Take a look at these lines:
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.
Here, Atticus Finch is speaking. He is encouraging courage in as clear terms as possible. He’s making it known that courage is one thing and very much not another.