Connotative Meaning

Ever wonder why a word could have so many meanings attached to it? The definition of connotative meaning, or connotation, has to do with the socially acquired value of words. In other words, connotative meaning explains the extra meaning of words that goes beyond the dictionary definition. 

Connotative Meaning Connotative Meaning

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Table of contents

    Connotative meaning and connotation synonym

    The definition of connotative meaning is also known as associated meaning, implied meaning, or secondary meaning. Associated meaning is the meaning that becomes attached to a word because of its use but is not part of the core sense of the word.

    The opposite of connotative meaning is denotative meaning, which is the literal meaning of the word.

    Each individual has a different association with a word based on their personal feelings and background, which means that connotative meaning is a cultural or emotional association to a word or phrase. The word 'baby' has a literal, or denotative, meaning. A baby is an infant. But if a grown man is called a 'baby', the connotation is negative; he is acting like a child.

    Tip: the 'con' in the word 'connote' comes from the Latin for 'in addition'. So the connotation of the word is 'extra' to the main meaning.

    Connotation examples: connotative words

    Connotation is a meaning in addition to the definitional meaning you find in a dictionary. Because of this, it is not always easy to interpret the meaning of a word based on the word's literal meaning alone.

    For example, when we use the word 'dinner', there is a range of possible connotations. Aside from the dictionary definition ('a meal'), there are associated meanings that we would claim as connotative meanings:

    • For one person, dinner is a time of joy, togetherness, conversation or debate, and laughter.
    • For another person, dinner evokes feelings of loneliness, conflict, or silence.
    • For a third, it evokes memories of kitchen aromas and certain childhood foods. The word 'dinner' has a range of connotations based on individual experiences.

    Connotative Meaning, Dinner Connotations, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 The connotative meaning of dinner could be either positive or negative.

    Here's another example of connotative meaning. If we call someone rich we can use a number of different words: loaded, privileged, wealthy, affluent. These words all have the literal meaning of rich. However, connotative words introduce negative and positive meanings that inform the reader about how an individual views a rich person.

    Negative connotation, positive connotation, neutral connotation

    There are three types of connotative meanings: positive, negative, and neutral. The classification is based on what kind of response the word generates.

    • Positive connotation carries favourable associations.
    • Negative connotation carries unfavourable associations.
    • Neutral connotation carries neither favourable nor unfavorable associations.

    Compare the sentences below and see if you can feel the different tones each connotation provokes:

    1. Tom is an extraordinary guy.
    2. Tom is an unusual guy.
    3. Tom is a weird guy.

    If you think extraordinary implies positive emotions, unusual implies a neutral value, and weird gives negative associations, you'd be correct!

    Here are some examples of the different types of connotative words:

    Positive connotationNeutral connotationNegative connotation
    uniquedifferent

    peculiar

    interestedcuriousnosy
    extraordinaryunusualweird
    determinedstrong-willedstubborn
    employuseexploit

    Connotative meanings are not only classified according to the positive / negative / neutral value a word or phrase has. Instead, there are certain forms of connotative meaning we must look at to understand the many emotional and cultural associations involved in connotative meaning.

    Forms of connotative meaning

    Forms of connotative meaning were first offered by Dickens, Hervey and Higgins (2016).

    Forms of Connotative MeaningExplanationExample
    Associative MeaningThe overall meaning which has expectations associated with the individual.A nurse is commonly associated with the female gender, which has meant society has adopted male nurse to counteract the feminine association with the word nurse.
    Attitudinal MeaningThe part of an overall meaning of an expression that is influenced by a more widespread attitude to the individual.

    The derogatory term 'pigs' is assigned to police officers. It is implied that the speaker or writer dislikes police officers in general by referring to the collective as pigs rather than a dislike for a particular police officer.

    Affective Meaning

    The additional meaning of the word is conveyed by the tonal register, which includes vulgar, polite, or formal.

    Politeness itself carries a meaning according to how a speaker addresses other individuals or learned behaviours such as holding doors open.

    Can you think of a difference between UK and US speaker's idea of politeness?
    Allusive meaningWhen an expression evokes an associated saying or quotation in a certain way. This shows that the meaning of the saying becomes part of the overall meaning of the expression.When an author unconsciously refers to other novels in its title, or if the title of their book involves an allusion: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) alludes to Shakespeare's The Tempest (1611).
    Reflected MeaningThis is a function of polysemy, and involves the existence of two or more denotative meanings for one word.

    If we were to refer to a person as a rat:

    Advice - a person who betrays their friend.

    Rat - the image of a dirty animal.

    Geographical Dialect-related MeaningThe speech variety in regions or geographic borders and the meanings we attach to an individual's accent or dialect.If we know what a Yorkshire or Scottish accent sounds like, we can understand that an individual is from Yorkshire or Scotland. We also associate stereotypical values with the individual's character or personality.
    Temporal dialect-related meaningThis is another speech variety that tells us when the speaker is from.

    An example includes Shakespeare's plays, which tell us that his speakers are from the sixteenth century and have a specific attitude towards sixteenth-century politics and religion.

    Emphasis (emphatic meaning)This involves effect/affect in language and literature.

    Emphasis is found in devices such as parallelism, alliteration, rhyme, exclamation marks in writing, metaphor, and emphatic particles including 'so'.

    (That's so funny!)

    Connotative meaning in literature

    Writers often use various connotative meanings, such as emphasis, to create multiple layers of meaning in a story. Connotation is found in figurative language which is any word or phrase used that has different meanings from the literal meaning.

    Figurative language involves figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, metonymy, and personification. Let's look at some examples of figures of speeches which have non-literal, or connotative meanings, in Literature.

    Metaphor

    Metaphor directly refers to one thing as another thing to express the similarities between them.

    "Hope" is the thing with feathers -

    That perches in the soul -

    And sings the tune without the words -

    And never stops - at all -

    - '"Hope" is The Thing with Feathers' by Emily Dickinson (1891).

    In this poem, the literal meaning of hope is used. However, hope is referred to as a feathered entity that is perched in the human soul and constantly singing. In other words, Dickinson gives the word hope a connotative meaning. The thing then has emotional meaning in addition to its literal meaning.

    Simile

    Simile compares two things using connecting words such 'as' or 'like' to make the comparisons.

    O my Luve is like a red, red rose

    That's newly jump in June;

    O my Luve is like the melody

    That's sweetly played in tune

    - 'A Red, Red Rose' by Robert Burns (1794).

    Burns compares the narrator's love to a red rose that is freshly sprung in June and to a beautiful tune being played. Love is described as something beautiful, vivid, and soothing, like a rose. The connecting words 'like' help to add additional and emotional meaning to the red, red roses.

    Metonymy

    Metonymy refers to a replacement of a thing by the name of something closely associated with it.

    When I consider how my light is spent,

    Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

    And that one talent which is death to hide

    Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

    - 'Sonnet XIX' by John Milton (1652).

    This requires some background information. By 1652, Milton had become totally blind. The poem can be interpreted as Milton replacing the word 'sight' with my light. The sonnet reflects how the speaker faces both the physical and psychological challenges brought about by his blindness, for as a writer and translator he depended on his sight. As a poem about faith, how can Milton use his talents to serve God? Can he totally achieve an enlightened path without his sight?

    Personification

    Personification is the use of human characters to represent abstract ideas, animals, or inanimate things.

    Earth trembl'd from her entrails, as again

    In pangs, and Nature gave a second groan,

    Sky lowe'r'd, and muttering Thunder, some sad drops

    Wept at completing the mortal Sin

    Original.

    - 'Paradise Lost' by John Milton (1667).

    In 'Paradise Lost', Milton portrays Nature as if it had human qualities or characteristics. Nature, thunder, and sky are given extra associated meaning because they cannot literally weep about mortal sin. The poem describes Nature as having the human trait of being able to weep. This suggests an emotional association with the image of a weeping nature.

    Connotation and denotation

    Connotative meaning is the opposite of denotative meaning, but how different are they? What happens if a writer uses denotation instead of connotative meaning to describe a scene? To answer these questions, let's start with the meaning of denotation.

    Denotative meaning

    Denotative meaning is the literal definition of a word. Unlike connotative meaning, it does not involve cultural or emotional associations to a word or phrase. Because of this, denotative meaning is also often called the literal meaning, explicit meaning, or dictionary definition.

    Denotative vs. connotative meaning in writing

    Now we know the difference between the two terms, let's use our knowledge for writing purposes!

    Let's say we are writing a scene about a man who has just arrived in Hollywood. What do you think about when you hear the word 'Hollywood'?

    • Hollywood has a denotative meaning because it is a literal place in Los Angeles.
    • Hollywood also has a connotative meaning because we associate the word Hollywood with the film industry.

    The man could be returning to Hollywood, his home. Or, he could be an aspiring actor who hopes to 'make-it-big' in Hollywood.

    Connotative Meaning, Hollywood Meaning, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The connotative meaning of Hollywood is associated with the film industry.

    The connotative meanings a word carries can be different for different people, and we must watch out for implied or extra meanings in literature and everyday language.

    Connotative Meaning - Key takeaways

    • The definition of connotative meaning is that it explains the “extra”, associated, implied, or secondary meaning of a word.
    • Examples of words that have connotative meanings include 'rich', 'baby', and 'dinner'.
    • Types of connotative meaning include positive, negative, and neutral.
    • Forms of connotative meaning include associative, attitudinal, affective, reflected, geographical dialect-related, temporal dialect-related, and emphasis.
    • Connotative meaning in literary devices appears in metaphors, similes, metonymys, and personification.
    • The difference between connotative and denotative meaning in writing depends on the tone and setting of the story.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Connotative Meaning

    What does connotation mean?

    Connotation, or connotative words, is the range of cultural or emotional associations produced by a word or phrase.

    What are other names for connotative meaning?

    Other names for connotative meaning include associated meaning, implied meaning, or secondary meaning.

     What are the types of connotations?

    The types of connotations are positive, negative, and neutral connotations.

    What's the difference between connotative and denotative meaning?

    Denotative meaning refers to the literal definition of a word or phrase, whereas connotative meaning refers to the “extra” or associated meaning of a word or phrase.

    What is an example of connotative meaning?

    An example of connotative meaning would be the word 'blue'. Whilst the denotative (literal) meaning refers to a colour, the connotative meaning could be:


    • A negative emotion, e.g. if someone is feeling blue, they feel down or sad.
    • A positive emotion, e.g. blue could evoke feelings of serenity or calmness.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false - Skinny has a more negative connotation than slim.

    True or false - Interested has a more negative connotation than nosy.

    True or false - Unique has a more positive connotation than peculiar.

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