How does one explain denotation and connotation?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The terms connotation and denotation are used to refer to ways in which we analyze words.

The connotation of a word refers to a meaning the word implies that is separate and distinct from the actual definition of the word. The Literary Devices dictionary gives us the example of the term Wall Street, which is literally a street in New York City. However, since it is also the world's largest financial district, the term Wall Street has come to convey connotations of "'wealth' and 'power'" ("Connotations"). Words can also convey negative and positive connotations; for example the word dog, while literally referring to an animal, has come to have connotations of ugliness depending on the context in which the word is used. In contrast, the word dove, while also the name of an animal, has come to have positive connotations that make us think of peace and love.

In contrast, the term denotation refers to the strict, literal meaning of a word. Dr. Wheeler gives us the example that the words civil war, revolution, and rebellion all have the same denotation, which is that "they all refer to an attempt at social or political change"; however, they all three have different connotations ("Literary Terms and Definitions: C"). The term civil war makes us think of historical references; the term revolution can make us think not just of war but of scientific advancements and changes in philosophical thinking; only the term rebellion makes us think of violence and bloodshed, so only it has negative connotations.

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