connotation and denotation

These two literary terms, and their associated verbs, denote and connote,  are valuable items to have in your literary analysis toolbox, especially when stripping down a poem. Writers make good use of connotation when crafting a poem or novel: students can reverse the process to find out what they were up to.
Definition of denote
To denote means ‘to stand for’, ‘to signify; or simply ‘to mean’.  Basically, it reduces the chosen word to its unadorned, simplest meaning – its primary meaning.
GRASS – member of the flowering plant family known botanically as poaceae – In other words, that green leafy stuff that comes out of the ground.
SUN – the ball of gaseous matter that all planets revolve around in our solar system…that thing we see in the sky by day if it isn’t raining.
LION – second-largest member of the cat family genus Panthera.  
The word can be used to make a specific connection between two things:
When buying seafood, dull sunken eyes denote a stale fish.
The Queensland tourist hotspot known as the Gold Coast denotes a 41 kilometre strip of almost continuous beach and a string of suburbs from Southport in the north to Coolangatta in the south.

Definition of Connotation
This is harder to define simply. It refers to the other secondary meanings or associations tagged on to the primary meaning of a word.  Words acquire layers of meaning. ‘Sweat’, for instance, can be symbolic of ‘honest hard work’.  In combinations like ‘sweatshop’, the connotation is a derogatory one: it refers to a place where labour is long, poorly paid and in poor conditions.  In some contexts, ‘sweat’ could connote ’fearfulness’.
Writers, particularly poets, sometimes use words with a range of connotations to establish layers of meaning, a symbolic association or a subtext.

Examples of Connotation
Let us re-examine those three simple words that were given denotations above – grass, sun, and lion.
Grass could have the connotation of  ‘renewal ‘ when fresh green glass sprouts after the drought breaks.  For some, it could evoke innocent childhood summer days. Consider a poem that contains the line: “In grassy fields I lie.”  Does it have a peaceful, relaxed mood and perhaps make you feel a little wistful in your reminiscences?  What if, by the end of the poem you discover that the voice of the poem is a dead soldier?  The poet has used your powerful, positive connotations of ‘grass’ to create irony and make the persona’s situation more poignant.
The sun has many connotations – power, lordship, light, illumination, fun, summer, life, fertility.  It is no surprise that powerful kings and organisations want to associate themselves with the sun.
The lion has similar connotations of power and kingship, strength, leadership, virility, courage – even maleness, even though there are female lions. It’s a popular name with sporting teams for all those associations.  A writer might play on these connotations in a subtle way by naming a character Leo or Leon, who may demonstrate heroic qualities or in an ironic twist be the ultimate coward.  A character in a novel might live in a house where the front steps are flanked by twin marble or plaster lions.  The material of the statuary may add a nuance to the meaning of the symbol.  Or pigeons may sit in the gutter above the marble lions and do what pigeons are best at.  We are creeping into the area of symbolism and extended metaphor here, but the starting point is the connotation of the word lion. Because of these universal connotations, a stone statue of a lion cannot simply be considered as a chunk of rock with an animal’s shape carved in it.

Private Connotations
Some writers and poets repeatedly use certain objects in multiple works – they become part of their style.  The poet Sylvia Plath, for example, seemed to use the moon as a symbol of womanhood.  Such a symbol is not a private symbol as this association is a common one.  Other poets have ‘pet’ words that must mean something – possibly a childhood association – and which a whole academic industry is geared to probing, presuming, proving and publishing. Even on a popular level, look at how much fun and energy has gone into deciphering meanings in ‘Goodbye Miss American Pie.’
Private connotation is a two-way street.  The poet encases his or her meaning in words that have strong personal connotations, screws the poem into a tight little ball and tosses it down the centuries to you, the reader.   You open it and the poem becomes yours: you bring your own connotations to the words.   If the poet uses the lion as a symbol of nobility and beauty, and you happen to be almost phobic about lions or see them as imprisoned victims… we have a problem, Houston.  It’s the same with small cats: you either love ‘em or hate ‘em.  Consider your own feelings about cats; are they endearing, cute companions … or aloof, smelly freeloaders who destroy native wildlife?
With a clear understanding of what connotation means, it is a useful exercise to go through a poem or novel, underline significant nouns and make a list of all the various feelings and ideas associated with them.  Something may emerge that blows the poem or novel passage open for you, establishes a theme and informs the entire work.

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