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.
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.
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."
Exercise 2: Work with a Thesaurus
Look up the following very negative words in Merriam-Webster's Thesaurus.
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.
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:
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.