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What Is Denotation?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Denotation refers to the strict definition or meaning of a particular word, which is often free of secondary or unintended emotional indicators. This means that the denotation of a word usually refers to what that word would mean if looked up in a dictionary and also refers to associated meanings that directly relate to a strict meaning. Such meanings can develop in a number of different ways, often dealing with historical usage. This is in contrast to the connotation of a word, which refers to emotional or secondary meanings that a word may have beyond its strict meaning.

Effective communication and use of language often relies upon a clear understanding of both the denotations and connotations of words. Someone who understands the denotation or basic definition of words can more easily and properly use those terms in conversation or in written texts. This is often seen as a sign of education or intelligence, regardless of whether such indicators are appropriate or legitimate. Articulate expression of ideas can have a tremendous impact on casual conversation, as well as debates and negotiations.

The simplest and most basic understanding of denotation is that it is the dictionary definition of a word. This can be fairly easy to remember since the words “denotation,” “dictionary,” and “definition” all begin with the letter “D.” A word might have only a single denotation, based on the most common and standard agreed upon meaning for that word. Some words, however, can have quite a few different denotations, which are all accurate and acceptable, depending on how the word is used.

A simple word like “cat,” for example, typically has only a single denotation. That is because this word describes a very definite and concrete thing, a four-legged animal that is often furry and looks fairly common between different breeds. More complicated words, however, such as “sacrifice” or “life” can have many different denotations due to the complexity of the idea referred to by such words.

Many words also have connotations, which refer to ideas or feelings that are often associated with such words, regardless of the strict meaning of the word. The denotation of the word “superficial,” for example, simply refers to something that exists or is involved with the surface level of something and is devoid of positive or negative meaning. “Superficial” has a very definite connotation in some cultures, however, in which it has negative overtones and usually refers to someone who is vain or only concerned with surface appearances. Such connotations are usually based on cultural concepts and can vary widely.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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