The Literary Apprentice
   

Connotations and Denotations


   

Both connotation and denotation are important for your understanding of literature. One book defines connotation this way:

The cluster of implications that words or phrases may carry with them, as distinguished from their denotative meanings. Connotations may be (1) private and personal, the result of individual experiences (2) group (national, linguistic, racial) or (3) general or universal, held by all or most men [sic]. The scientist and philosopher attempt to hold words to their denotative meaning; the literary artist relies on connotations to carry his [sic] deepest meanings.

So does the advertiser or the propagandist. In fact, we all use connotations all the time.

However, the scientist and the philosopher try to control the use of connotations as much as possible because connotations can vary and be difficult to make explicit or to agree upon. Denotations, on the other hand, can be made exact. When we think denotatively, words can seem to be made to mean no more and no less than what we define them to mean. People turn to dictionaries to discover the agreed upon denotative meaning or they construct their own quite bounded meanings that they agree on. When reason is the strategy, neutral or clearly defined terms are preferred.

But when writers use words that have associations and emotional overtones that are harder to pin down or agree upon, they use them primarily to convey and create auras of contexts and emotional force.

The connotation of a word can be thought of as its aura or aroma, a kind of smell the word has. If you can tell the associational company the word keeps, then, that smell is meant to rub off on the words around it or the subject the word is aimed at. A word might connote guy talk, for example, if it is the word guys sometimes use. It then might connote a male or masculine world.

The denotative meaning of the word, dog, is a four legged, carnivorous, domesticated mammal known to biologists as canis familiaris. However, the connotative meaning would depend on the context of usage and the experiences of the interpreter. No one would call another person’s mother a "dog," unless they wanted a fight, because the connotation is one of insult. Names for animals frequently have connotative associations, and not all negative. Think about teams, for example, that are named for animals—strictly because of the connotations of the animal’s name: Bears, Rams, Jaguars. Think of some impossible team names, again because of the connotations: caterpillars, spiders, gnats, anthrax. Just think: "Bear down Chicago Gnats!"

If you search for connotations and denotations on Google.com, you will find hundreds of pages from the simple to the complex that will define Connotation and Denotation for you. Some involve exercises. If you work with these pages, you will gradually develop strategies for investigating the tone of a literary text through an examination of the connotations of its language. That is our goal--to work with literature. However, literature is not the only discourse that makes extensive use of the connotative capacity of language. Persuasion, propaganda, advertising are obvious users of connotations.

 

  • Bedford/St. Martin's tutorial on poetry defines connotation and denotation and provides some exercises for help as well. Go there and work with the connotations in Elizabeth Bishop's The Fish. http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/virtualit/denotate_def.html
  • Check out these definitions from Bob's Byway: Connotation and Denotation (While you are on these two pages, check out his definitions of ambiguity and pun.)
  • And here is the UVic site: connotation and denotation <http://web.uvic.ca/wguide/Pages/LTConAndDen.html>
  • The Literacy Education Online page <http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/grammar/connotations.html> from St Cloud State suggests three categories for connoative words: favorable, neutral, unfavorable. Look at their table for examples.
  • Finally, here is the most extensive explanation of all: Daniel Chamber's Semiotics for Beginners page on these two. We will return to his site for explanations of figures of speech as well. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem06.html

All the above definitions are pretty consistent with one another. On the surface they seem easy. The test comes in working with language to detect and describe connotation. If we assume denotative meanings are more arbitrated by dictionaries, it would seem we can simply look those up. But what if one is asked to analyze the connotations? How can one get a handle on that?

My solution is this. First we must think in terms of what difference is made when a poet or any writer choses one word out of a pool of synonyms that could be used? What shades of difference happen? But I am aiming for you to get a sense of it with these exercises:

Exercise 1 : Playing with triplets

Go to a little self-test quiz on connotative terms to see if you can pick the term that seems (to me at least) to leave the most favorable impression on a listener regarding the subject of the sentence.

Example:

Sentence: My mother thinks of herself as a ___.

a. home-maker

b. house-wife

c. stay-at-home wife

If the above were your choices for this sentence, you would choose the first term, home-maker, since the overtones of "home" are much more appealing for your mother than "house," and "making" a home sounds much more active and responsible. Notice, I did not make it easy by including really negative synonyms for her such as "ball and chain" or "old lady" or ridiculously positive ones like "domestic engineer."

Enter the quiz


Exercise 2: Work with a Thesaurus

Look up the following very negative words in Merriam-Webster's Thesaurus.

  • Examine the list of several synonyms given for each term. I have included them below.
  • Pick the least negative sounding version and then the most negative sounding.

This means that if these words were being applied to you (heaven forbid), say in a letter that affected your future, and you had the chance to make the writer choose which one, which would it be? Then think the same way, only choose the worst word for your enemy's letter. Notice you are not changing denotations, but only connotations.

  • stupid :
    • Synonyms beefheaded, beef-witted, beetleheaded, blear-eyed, blear-witted, blockheaded, blockish, chuckleheaded, dense, doltish, dull, dumb, duncical, fatheaded, goosey, hammerheaded, numskulled, pinhead, pinheaded, thick, thickheaded, thick-witted
  • dishonest :
    • Synonyms deceitful, knavish, lying, mendacious, roguish, shifty, unhonest, untruthful
  • poor :
    • Synonyms beggared, broke, destitute, dirt poor, flat, fortuneless, impecunious, impoverished, indigent, low, necessitous, needy, penurious, poverty-stricken, stone-broke, stony, strapped, unprosperous
  • greedy :
    • Synonyms covetous, acquisitive, desirous, grabby, grasping, itchy, prehensile

Write sentences with each choices. Label each sentence either most negative, least negative. You can, of course, use the thesaurus to look up other groups of words to analyze which have the most or least negative connotations. Shift to positive terms and examine them as well.

Exercise 3: The connotative mirror (From Dobbs, The Writer in Performance)

Write a one paragraph character sketch of yourself, contrasting your self-impressions with those your enemies may have. Create this double picture by using denotative synonyms that have different connotations, those that flatter and those that criticize. Use the thesaurus.

Example: I say I'm firm; my enemies say I'm hard-headed. I say I stand for principles; they say I'm dogmatic. I say I'm zealous in the defense of my principles; they say I'm fanatical. I say the wrongs of this world prompt my righteous indignation; they say I've got a holier-than-thou attitude.

Caution: be sure you do not contrast denotations, ending up with pairs like this: I think I am good looking; my enemies say I am ugly. That might become instead, I think I may look plain (ill-favored?); my enemies say I am ugly (hideous?).


Exercise 3: Advertising Slogans

Now, go to this web site and examine the advertising slogans.

Advertising Slogans from the University of Texas at Austin: http://advertising.utexas.edu/research/slogans/

Choose at least three and rewrite them so they say essentially the same thing but no longer have the same connotations. What is now missing? That will help you identify the connotative words in the original. For example, if "Just do it!" were there, one could rewrite that to be "Make it happen right now." That tells me the original words "just" and "do" connote a "no more excuses" tone and come closer to sounding like the self-disciplined, in-command personality which the physically fit wannabe's desire. People in Nikes want to look like they are "just do it" types (cousins of your father's "just get it done" tone).

What happens if "That frosty mug sensation" becomes "That freezing stein feeling"? The things lost are the original connotations--which are what?

Go on to choose your own. Do several.


Exercise 4 : Work with poetry's language

So far these exercises give you the impression that the range of emotions which connotations achieve run merely from positive to negative poles--what one linguist signified with the terms snarl words and purr words--but the issue of connotations is more complex.

Connotative associations are like the aura or trappings a word brings with it into the work or passage or statement. For example, what is the difference between saying I have a big vocabulary or I have many words in my lexicon? Does one sound more educated or simply like jargon? Words acquire a flavor from their origins and use. What people think of them has to do with their prejudices and ideologies. In George Bernard Shaw's play, Pygmalion, Henry Higgins tries to raise Liza Doolittle from the gutter to upperclass status by changing how she speaks, and that meant more than changing her accent. It also meant changing her use of slang, colloquialisms, and local color speech, substituting these words with others that came from the aristocratic discourse she would emulate. Words connect with work environments, regions, class, cultural and educational backgrounds of all sorts.

Words also connect with emotions more complexly: they can make us feel happy or sad or disgusted or fearful or comfortable or embarrased. We can only begin to work with these complexities by talking about the actual choices a poet made and the feelings they evoke in us.

Here is a portion of a poem, Venison by Karen Chase. It is a short poem, please read it.

The husband, Paul, has just returned from a hunting trip.

Here is the first verse:

Paul set the bags down, told how they had split
the deer apart, the ease of peeling it
simpler than skinning a fruit
, how the buck
lay on the worktable, how they sawed
an anklebone off, the smell not rank.
The sun slipped into night.

  • Notice the phrase in italics (mine). Now you may not have thought of this when you first read the lines, but most of us would say that the word peeling is more associated with (connotative of) fruits and vegetables than skinning, which is the term we would associate with removing the skin from an animal. Now, look again: the poet has reversed them. Why?
  • Notice "they sawed an anklebone off"-- Butchers usually disjoint or dismember a carcass. While sawing bones is necessary, sawing a joint apart, especially the ankle joint, is a striking image. What does it connote? Is the word "sawed" connotative of anything? And why "anklebone" of all the parts of the deer?
  • Why "the smell not rank"? Look up "rank." What does it mean precisely in this context? Assuming you had known the various words associated with rank, what effect is achieved by using the word here? To ask the question more precisely, what does her husband perhaps reveal about himself by noting that the smell was not "rank"?
  • Notice the final line: The sun slipped into night. What is happening here. The sun set is the ordinary or common phrase. The poet could have said that. She didn't. Why? What is the effect of the phrase slipped into night? How does it make you feel?

Someone reading poetry does not always begin to ask questions such as these on the first reading or even the second or third. But if you wish to work with connotations and denotations in poetry you will soon find yourself asking why this word and not another? As you work your way through Chase's poem ask yourself if any of the first stanza's connotations prepare for the direction the poem takes.

For this exercise, select a passage from a poem that contains language that strikes you. Copy the passage as I did. Then isolate the words that provoke your interest. Research them and attempt to account for them. What other terms might the poet have used, yet clearly rejected? Try to account for at least three or four words in the poem.

 

   

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