Guide to Literary Terms

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Explain the difference between 'denotation' and 'conotation'.

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Denotation is the objective definition of a word, usually as found in a dictionary. Connotation is the subjective meaning that people attach to a word, which can be different from the formal definition. For example, the words "thin" or "slender" both denote more or less the same thing as the word "skinny." But "skinny" typically has a negative, unhealthy connotation. In literature as in speech, understanding the connotations of a word requires certain cultural knowledge. To cite a simplistic example, we all know what the the denotation of the word "chicken" is. But to call someone a "chicken" is to suggest that they are a coward in American English. On the other hand, it used to be in vogue to call an attractive person a "fox," which, of course, was not to suggest that they resembled the animal in any way. Rather, it was because the word carried certain cultural connotations. Connotations can also be arbitrary and subjective, based on personal experience. As one scholar observes, the word "home" might conjure up hellish images for one person who lives or lived under difficult circumstances, while others associate the word with happiness.  

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laurto | Student

Denotation is the literal or primary meaning of a word, in contrast to the feelings or ideas that the word suggests. Connotation is an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary  meaning.