Denotation and Connotation

If you want to discuss the meaning of a word, it helps to know the difference between denotation and connotation. These two terms are easy to confuse because they describe related concepts. Additionally, both denotation and connotation stem from the Latin word notāre, meaning “to note.”

The denotation of a word or phrase is its explicit or direct meaning. Another way to think of it is as the associations that a word usually elicits for most speakers of a language, as distinguished from those elicited for any individual speaker because of personal experience.

The connotation of a word or phrase is the associated or secondary meaning; it can be something suggested or implied by a word or thing, rather than being explicitly named or described.

For example, the words home and house have similar denotations or primary meanings: a home is “a shelter that is the usual residence of a person, family, or household,” and a house is “a building in which people live.” However, for many, these terms carry different associations or secondary meanings, also known as connotations. Many people would agree that home connotes a sense of belonging and comfort, whereas house conveys little more than a structure.

The connotation of a word depends on cultural context and personal associations, but the denotation of a word is its standardized meaning within the English language. One way to remember the difference between the terms is to take a hint from the prefixes: con– comes from Latin and means “together; with,” reminding us that the connotation of a word works with or alongside its more explicit meaning or denotation.

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