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The denotation of a word could be loosely understood as its objective meaning, compared to the subjective meaning encompassed by the term connotation. The denotation of a word is simply what the dictionary says the word means, independent from cultural or situational context. When actually used, the word may have meanings for the listener that transcend its denotation. For example, "swastika" meant something quite different for traditional Hindus than it now does for modern Westerners. 


Denotation is the main or primary meaning of a word, not including any connotations (ideas, feelings, or associations) the word produces during use. Denotation is the set of associations a word may elicit from most speakers of a certain language, as opposed to those which are specific to a particular speaker due to a personal experience. Denotation is also the action or process of indicating or referring to something using a word or a symbol. The word “denotation” is derived from the Latin word “dēnotātiōn” meaning marking out, or equivalent to.  Its first known use was circa 1532.

Examples of denotation

A denotation is a word that names or signifies something very specific. 

Example 1: Wind.

Wind is the denotation for air swirling about in natural motion.

Example 2: Poodle.

A poodle is a specific dog breed.

Example 3: The South Pacific.

The South Pacific is a specific area or place on the planet Earth.

Example 4: Modern.

“Modern” means “belonging to recent times” denotatively, but may have other connotations if used in a different manner.

Denotation can be considered the literal or dictionary definition of a word in most cases; it may contrast with connotative meanings or those assigned by association or an individual’s personal experience. Denotation is a also a way to interpret the original meaning of a symbolic word or sign.

Example 4: Dove.

A dove is technically and literally a wild or domesticated pigeon which has a thick, round body and short legs. However, the symbolic dove represents the idea or concept of peace in much literature, writing, and graphic representation.

Denotation in literature

In philosophy, denotation is the concept or object which a term refers to. It can also be an entire set of objects of which a certain predicate is true. Denotation and connotation are two sides of the same literary coin; where one is present the other is not. Writers often assign new meanings or strip away meanings from common words in order to find fresh, creative points of view on mundane subjects. Such figurative language making reading and writing more interesting and connects it to different ideas and concepts that may not have been apparent before. Some examples of literary devices which change the denotation of a word are understatement, paradox, puns, metaphors, similes, personifications, and hyperbole. 

Conversational language often removes the denotation of a word and assigns connotations that would not as common in written language. Some examples of this are when the word “dog” is used to indicate ugly facial features or shamelessness; when the word home is used to imply family or comfort; or when a politician is spoken with a negative connotation.

Robert Frost uses denotation in his poem Mending Wall: “And on a day we meet to walk the line, and set the wall between us once again.”

Here the word “wall” has a denotative meaning and a connotative meaning. In Wordsworth’s poem A Slumber did my Spirit Seal the following lines contain denotation: “No motion has she now, no force; she neither hears nor sees; roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course with rocks, and stones, and trees.” The portions of earth referred to here are literal, making them denotative, even though the overall implications of the stanza are connotative.

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