I. What is Denotation?
Denotation (pronounced dee-noh-tey-shuh n) is a word’ or thing’s literal or main definition. The term comes from the late Latin Latin denotationem meaning “indication,” and is contrasted with connotation. A word’s denotation is completely absent of emotion, so it is defined as distinguished from its connotation (its associated meaning). In other words, denotation is a word’s “dictionary definition” rather than its associated emotion or definition.
II. Examples of Denotation
As mentioned above, a word’s denotation is understood as in contrast with its connotation.
For example, denotation of the word “blue” is the color blue, but its connotation is “sad”—read the following sentence:
The blueberry is very blue.
We understand this sentence by its denotative meaning—it describes the literal color of the fruit. In contrast, read the next sentence:
Susie is very blue.
If we understand this second sentence by its denotative meaning, it would mean that Susie is literally the color blue. However, we understand this sentence by its connotative meaning, which is that Susie is sad.
In another example, imagine a drawing with two trees—in one tree is a cat, and at the bottom of the other tree is a dog barking. The caption reads: You are barking up the wrong tree, Buddy! Here, the joke lies in the phrase’s denotative meaning—the dog is literally barking up the wrong tree, because the cat is in the other tree. However, without the picture, we would understand this phrase by its connotative meaning, which is to mistakenly pursue the wrong thing.
III. Importance of Denotation
A word or phrase’s denotation is what we would find in the dictionary, so it is important for one main reason—it provides clear, literal definition. However, in literature and in everyday language, a word’s denotation is often less central than its universal connotation, which allows writers to be more creative and expressive with their thoughts. If we only wrote using denotative meaning, all writing would be dull, colorless, and very straightforward.
IV. Examples of Denotation in Literature
Philosophical works rely on the denotative meaning of words and phrases when defining principles, ethics, or moral law. When a philosopher presents a philosophy or principle, he asserts it in terms of what he knows or has decided to be true—he makes statements rather than suggestions. For example, in Aristotle’s critical work Nichomachean Ethics, he explains the value of contemplation—
[C]ontemplation is both the highest form of activity (since the intellect is the highest thing in us, and the objects that it apprehends are the highest things that can be known), and also it is the most continuous, because we are more capable of continuous contemplation than we are of any practical activity.
Aristotle describes contemplation in terms of what he believes is its literal function in the human mind. He also explains that of all human activity, contemplation is the one we are capable of doing continuously. He does not use words that suggest that these are merely ideas, but rather, he uses words and phrasing that directly state what contemplation is.
Read the following selection from William Wordsworth’s well loved poem, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud:
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.
In the lines above, “golden daffodils,” and “beside the lake” are understood by their denotative meanings—the daffodils are flowers that are golden in color, and they are growing next to the lake. While “beneath the trees” may also seem like it is understood by its denotation, it is actually the connotation that we understand—the word “beneath,” by definition, “means directly underneath or below something.” So, the literal meaning of “beneath the trees” would be that the flowers are actually underneath the trees, under the ground, which would be impossible—accordingly, we must understand the phrase connotatively, to mean growing on the ground that is below the trees. To make the phrase defined by its denotation, it could say “beneath the branches of the trees.” However, to make the language poetic, Wordsworth chooses his words based on their connotation and flow, not necessarily their literal meanings.
In celebrated work Moby Dick, Herman Melville relies on both denotative and connotative meanings of the words he chooses to describe the elusive and legendary giant white sperm whale named Moby Dick. In fact, Melville and the book’s characters go back and forth between calling the whale by its denotative name; the “white whale”—which solely represents what type of animal it is—and the name it was given; Moby Dick. This can be seen in the selection below:
What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.
Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick…It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.
In the above passage, Ishmael begins by referencing the white whale, and in the following sentence calls him Moby Dick. He also specifies that was “the whiteness” of Moby Dick that bothered him more than anything—here, he is referring to the whale’s color, and is using “white” for its literal meaning. In fact, he spends an entire chapter discussing what Moby Dick’s literal could mean, but the whale’s whiteness is so absolute, so literally white, that Ishmael struggles to define what else the color means. He understands the whale’s color’s denotation, but is searching for its connotation.
V. Examples of Denotation in Pop Culture
Denotation is particularly useful and well employed in things that require instruction or definition, for example, cooking shows, how-to videos, or “do-it-yourself” (DIY) blogs. Cooking shows rely on clear instructions, properly measured amounts, and specific ingredients for the success of their recipes, because the audience needs these things to be able to recreate the recipes at home. The following is a basic pizza recipe from the bestselling Food Network Magazine:
How to make a pizza:
Step 1: Place a pizza stone or an inverted baking sheet on the lowest oven rack and preheat to 500 degrees.
Step 2: Stretch 1 pound dough on a floured pizza peel, large wooden cutting board or parchment paper.
Step 3: Top as desired, then slide the pizza (with the parchment paper, if using) onto the stone or baking sheet. Bake until golden, about 15 minutes.
The instructions use clear and specific language to instruct the reader how to make a pizza. The reader expects and relies on the literal meaning of directions to be able to follow it.
In the comedy movie Liar Liar, the main character, Fletcher, is unable to tell a lie for 24 hours after his son’s birthday wish comes true. So, Fletcher can only speak based on the denotative meanings of words, as in the following clip:
Since Fletcher cannot lie, everything he says and every word that comes out of his mouth must be literal, truthful, and straightforward—his normally creative, clever, and untruthful speech cannot be used. So, all of the things he says are objective and without feeling, which creates the majority of the film’s humor—Fletcher’s brutal honestly reveals and ridicules just how much we rely on connotation and safe word choice in everyday life, rather than denotation and literal, straightforward language.
VI. Related Terms
As outlined and exemplified above, a word’s connotation is its implied or associated meaning. It is distinguished from the word’s denotation in that it has either a positive negative feeling, while denotation’s purpose is to define without feeling.
In conclusion, denotation is valuable when you want to be clear and straightforward with the meaning of your words. It is the best way to choose your words when you want to be objective and informative, without creating other feelings or alternate meanings.