Denotative versus Connotative

Denotative – having the power of explicitly denoting or designating or naming
Connotative – Tending to bring a memory, mood, or image, for example, subtly or indirectly to mind

The denotative meaning of ‘cabbage’ when I say to the greengrocer ‘I’ll have a cabbage, please’ is ‘a green leafy vegetable etc.’ Whenever I hear or use the word ‘cabbage’, I feel slightly nauseous because it reminds me of my revolting school dinners, which nearly always included cabbage. That association of ‘cabbage’ with my school dinners is what we refer to as connotation. It is the connotative dimension of meaning, which varies more or less greatly from one user of the sign to another. When we speak of ‘The Queen of England’ and ‘The wrinkly old woman who owns the house at the end of the Mall’ we are referring to, or denoting, the same person, but the connotations are quite different.

Consider words such as good, desirable, unpleasant, beautiful. They are closely tied to the person who uses them; the meanings we have for them therefore vary greatly in communication. They often cause us trouble, particularly if we don’t allow for the possibility that other people’s connotations for them may well be radically different from ours.


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