Denotation

Definition of Denotation

A word’s denotation is its literal, dictionary definition. Denotation is the objective meaning of a word, with no associated emotion. Every word that has a dictionary definition has a denotation, no matter the language or part of speech. It’s also possible for similar words to denote the same thing and have the same dictionary definition.  In addition, denotation is objective; it is not dependent upon a person’s interpretation or experience. However, denotation isn’t necessarily neutral since its definition can be inherently positive or negative.

Denotation is an important literary device in that it allows a writer to choose an exact word to describe or convey something to the reader. Careful word selection gives writers an opportunity to be as clear, direct, and precise as possible. Any word substitution can completely change the feeling, tone, and meaning of expression.

For example, the novel Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., begins with this line:

All this happened, more or less.

The first phrase appears absolute with the word “all.” However, the following phrase “more or less” denotes to the reader that the first phrase is, in fact, not absolute and that there is a sense of doubt as to the truth of the events portrayed in the story. Without that denotation, the reader would begin the novel by assuming that what is said to have happened, did happen.

Common Examples of Denotation in Everyday Speech

People often speak in generalities, which can lead to confusion and misinterpretation. Denotation brings clarity to everyday speech. Here are some common examples of generalities and how denotation and specific wording helps avoid misunderstanding or confusion in everyday speech:

  • I enjoy watching movies. / I enjoy watching thrillers.
  • Do you feel ill? / Do you feel nauseous?
  • I’m looking for a book. / I’m looking for a biography.
  • John is learning a Mozart piano piece. / John is learning a Mozart piano sonata.
  • The box is from the United States. / The box is from Kansas.
  • My class is studying science. / My class is studying biology.
  • Mary is interested in helping animals. / Mary is interested in fostering animals.
  • Do you enjoy Mexican food? / Do you enjoy enchiladas?
  • Joe told Karen that she is looking bigger. / Joe told Karen that she is looking taller.
  • Bill told John that he swims often. / Bill told John that he swims competitively.

Famous Examples of Denotation in Speeches and Quotes

Denotation is an effective literary device for creating memorable speeches and quotes. Denotation brings clarity and precision to a speaker’s message, which makes it more impactful. Here are some famous examples of denotation in well-known speeches and quotes:

  • The only thing we have to fear is fear itself (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
  • But those values upon which our success depends – honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. (Barack Obama)
  • The greatest danger to our future is apathy. (Jane Goodall)
  • There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure. (Colin Powell)
  • Women will only have true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation. (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)
  • Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason. (Abraham Joshua Heschel)
  • Good writers define reality; bad ones merely restate it. A good writer turns fact into truth; a bad writer will, more often than not, accomplish the opposite. (Edward Albee)
  • I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks. (Harper Lee)

Difference Between Denotation and Connotation

The relationship between denotation and connotation as literary devices is both contrasting and complementary. Whereas denotation signifies a word’s literal meaning, connotation signifies a word’s associated meaning(s). Connotation is a feeling or emotion that a word evokes or carries, and this affects the way a reader understands its use. For example, the words lady and broad have the same denotations. However, lady has a positive connotation in terms of politeness and refinement; whereas broad has a negative connotation in terms of slang and its pejorative nature. Therefore, lady and broad have the same literal meaning but evoke different emotions and reactions in a reader due to their associated meanings.

Writers utilize denotation when the specific and literal meaning of a word is needed for clarity. Though denotation is straightforward, it can restrict creativity in a literary work if it is overused. Connotation enhances detail, development, and variety in literature, in addition to eliciting an emotional reaction and interpretation from the reader. Therefore, both denotation and connotation are essential literary devices. Though they are contrasts, they are also complementary in that a reader’s grasp of denotative meanings increases their ability to understand connotative meanings of words.

Examples of Denotation in Literature

Word choice, perhaps, has the strongest and most powerful influence on a reader in a work of literature. Therefore, denotation as the literal meaning of a word is an essential literary device for creating meaning in a literary work. In general, context is helpful in establishing connotative meaning in a literary work. However, denotation reflects a standardized meaning that is usually independent of context in literature.

Overall, denotation allows writers to be explicitly clear in their expression so that readers, regardless of their personal experience, are allowed direct understanding of their meaning. This enhances the accuracy of literary interpretation as well. Here are some examples of denotation in literature:

Example 1: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou)

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

In her autobiography, Angelou utilizes both denotation and connotation to reveal her story and address violence, racism, and other experiences that formed her identity. In this quote, Angelou is careful in her wording and relies on denotation as a literary device so that her reader understands her exact and explicit meaning. For example, her use of the word “agony” denotes extreme physical or mental suffering. This word choice is intentional so that the reader understands and identifies with Angelou’s need and drive to tell her story. In addition, through this denotation, Angelou is offering reciprocal understanding and empathy to her readers and their untold stories. This can effectively inspire others to follow Angelou’s path and share their own stories.

Example 2: The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)

You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.

In this passage from his novel, Hemingway utilizes the literal meaning of expatriate, a person who lives outside their native country, to establish the impact this life choice has had on the protagonist, Jake Barnes. Jake is literally an expatriate in Europe, yet he is not simply living outside his native country. He is changed by his expatriate status, and Hemingway expands the denotation of the word so that the reader clearly understands how this status has effected Jake and his identity. As an expatriate, Jake is untethered to meaningful aspects of his life and is, instead, displaced mentally and emotionally as well as physically. Therefore, Jake is an expatriate in every sense of the word’s denotation.

Example 3: One Perfect Rose (Dorothy Parker)

A single flow’r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet –
One perfect rose.

I knew the language of the floweret;
‘My fragile leaves,’ it said, ‘his heart enclose.’
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

Parker’s use of “limousine” and its literal definition demonstrates an ironic twist to what appears to be a romantic poem about a single perfect rose. The denotation of limousine as a large, luxurious automobile, typically driven by a chauffeur who is separated from the passengers by a partition, is in dramatic contrast to the images and feelings associated with a rose–both outside the context of the poem and within it as well. Parker’s intentional, literal use of the word limousine is effective in making the meaning of the poem clear for the reader.

Example 4: To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe- some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others- some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men.
But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal- there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.

In this passage from Lee’s novel, the character Atticus Finch is speaking to a white, male jury in defense of his client Tom Robinson, a black man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. In his speech, Atticus acknowledges that the word “equal” does not have an applicable denotation in terms of individual humans and their inherent characteristics, abilities, and opportunities. However, by establishing the denotation of equal, Atticus is able to apply it to his client in terms of implementation of the law in court.

Through Atticus’s denotative words, Lee is able to illustrate to her readers that though people as individuals are not inherently equal, they are (ideally) equal in a court as far as the law and justice. Therefore, Tom Robinson’s life is and should be equal in a judicial court to everyone else’s, no matter the color of his skin. This denotation of equality as it applies to justice and protection under the law is one of the central themes of Lee’s novel.

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