Denotation Definition

Denotation is generally defined as literal or dictionary meanings of a word in contrast to its connotative or associated meanings.

Let us try to understand this term with the help of an example. If you search for meaning of the word “dove” in a dictionary, you will see that its meaning is “a type of pigeon, a wild and domesticated bird having a heavy body and short legs.” In literature, however, you frequently see “dove” referred to as a symbol of peace.

Denotation and Connotation

In literary works, we find it a common practice with writers to deviate from the dictionary meanings of words to create fresher ideas and images. Such deviations from the literal meanings are called the use of figurative language or literary devices e.g. metaphors, similes, personifications, hyperboles, understatements, paradoxes, and puns etc. Even in our daily conversation, we diverge from the dictionary meanings of words and prefer connotative or associated meanings of words in order to accurately convey our message. Below is a list of some common deviations from denotative meanings of words that we experience in our day to day life:

  • A dog is used to suggest shamelessness or an ugly face.
  • A dove is used to suggest peace or gentility.
  • Home is used to suggest family, comfort and security.
  • Politician has a negative connotation of wicked and insincere person
  • Pushy refers to someone loud-mouthed and irritating.
  • Mom and Dad when used instead of mother and father suggest loving parents.

Denotation Examples in Literature

Let us analyze a few examples from literature:

1. An example of denotation literary term can be found in the poetic work of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”:

“And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.”

In the above lines, the word “wall” is used to suggest a physical boundary which is its denotative meaning but it also implies the idea of “emotional barrier”.

2. William Wordsworth in his poem “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” says:

“A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears–
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course
With rocks, and stones, and trees.”

Wordsworth makes a contrast between a living girl and a dead girl in the first and second stanza respectively. We are familiar to the meanings of the words used in the last line of the second stanza; rock, stone and tree but the poet uses them connotatively where rock and stone imply cold and inanimate object and the tree suggests dirt and thus the burial of that dead girl.

3. Look at the following lines from Shakespeare’s play “As you Like It”:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,”

Shakespeare moves away from the denotative meanings of words in the above lines in order to give a symbolic sense to a few words. “a stage” symbolizes the world, “players” suggests human beings and “parts” implies different stages of their lives.

4. Sara Teasdale in her poem “Wild Asters” develops a number of striking symbols by deviating from the denotative meanings of the words:

“In the spring, I asked the daisies
If his words were true,
And the clever, clear-eyed daisies
Always knew.

Now the fields are brown and barren,
Bitter autumn blows,
And of all the stupid asters
Not one knows.”

In the above lines, “spring” and “daisies” are symbol of youth. “Brown and barren” are a symbol of transition from the youth to the old age. Moreover, “Bitter Autumn” symbolizes death.

Function of Denotation

Readers are familiar with denotations of words but denotations are generally restricted meanings. Writers, therefore, deviate from the denotative meanings of words to create fresh ideas and images that add deeper levels of meanings to common and ordinary words. Readers find it convenient to grasp the connotative meanings of words because of the fact that they are familiar to their literal meanings.

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