Discover the difference between a word's denotation and its connotation in this lesson. Explore how authors use both denotation and connotation to add layers of meaning to their work with some literary examples.
What's in a Name?
Recently, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, residents had very strong reactions to the renaming of a major city street. Sistrunk Boulevard, named after African American Dr. James Sistrunk who founded a hospital for blacks in the 1930s, is a major street in what has been a largely black community for several decades. Until now, Sistrunk Boulevard ended at a set of railroad tracks and became Northeast Sixth Street when the neighborhood shifted into a much more economically prosperous (and white) community.
People in favor of continuing the name Sistrunk Boulevard past the railroad tracks saw the name change as a way to bridge the two communities, to continue to honor an important figure in Fort Lauderdale's history, and help ease confusion people may have looking for either street. It would bring more people into the neighborhood, local business owners argued.
People against the renaming of Northeast Sixth Street worried that the name Sistrunk Boulevard had too many negative associations. Over the past several years, Sistrunk had suffered economically, and the neighborhood had fallen into disrepair as businesses closed and people moved away. The street was seen by many as unsafe and rundown. The name Sistrunk eventually won out, though, and the street name now extends along its entire length.
'What's in a name?' Juliet says about Romeo's family name of Montague in Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet. Juliet argues that names aren't as important as we think, as 'That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.' But, like the communities in Fort Lauderdale, both for and against the street name change, what we call things is almost always packed with meaning.
Denotation and Connotation
Denotation is a word's literal meaning. For example, were Juliet to look up the word 'rose' in the dictionary, she would find something like, 'a bush or shrub that produces flowers, usually red, pink, white or yellow in color.' Similarly, street names, like Sistrunk Boulevard or Northeast Sixth Street, tell people where they are and help them get to where they want to go.
On the other hand, connotation is a word's underlying meanings; it is all the stuff we associate with a word. So, while a rose is indeed a type of flower, we also associate roses with romantic love, beauty and even special days, like Valentine's Day or anniversaries. Connotations go beyond the literal to what we think and feel when we hear or see a word.
So, while Sistrunk Boulevard tells people in Fort Lauderdale where they are (denotation), the name also makes some people feel pride because it honors a well-regarded local figure in the black community (connotation). Others see the name Sistrunk as having negative connotations because of its history of blight and crime. For some in the community, that which we call a rose, by any other name does not smell as sweet.
Examples from Literature
Notice earlier when I said that the two neighborhoods in Fort Lauderdale were divided by railroad tracks? 'The other side of the tracks' is a phrase with both denotative and connotative meanings. The phrase denotes something benign - that you are crossing railroad tracks - but can also have deep cultural and socio-economic connotations.
Railroad tracks often separate more well-off neighborhoods from other less-prosperous neighborhoods. In communities like Fort Lauderdale, the 'other side of the tracks' or the 'wrong side of the tracks' has negative connotations as rundown or unsafe. And, like Sistrunk, these tracks frequently separate one racial group from another, so the phrase can have racial implications as well.
Authors, and poets in particular, choose their words carefully, using connotations as a shorthand to say a lot all at once and give a work of literature an added layer (or layers) of meaning. Take this excerpt from the poem Mending Wall by American poet Robert Frost:
'And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.'
In the poem, the speaker and a neighbor meet to repair their shared stone fence, but the word choice and the connotations those words have, gives the poem meaning beyond the literal. 'Walk the line' denotes the 'practice of walking along and securing a property line,' as both owners do in the poem. However, 'walk the line' also means 'following the rules and doing what is socially accepted. Both men do what they are supposed to do, setting the wall between them.
However literal the wall between the two neighbors is, there exists an interpretation of 'a wall' between two people that is more figurative, something that keeps two people apart and separated from one another emotionally. Often we say 'there is a wall between them' or, in this case, 'the wall between us.' So, later in the poem when Frost writes, 'Good fences make good neighbors,' he is saying the opposite. The fences or 'walls' between the two people keep them apart physically and emotionally.
As a former classroom teacher, I often joke that there are few names with which I don't have very specific associations. Names as commonplace as Jacob or Julia have personal connotations related to specific students I taught, sometimes going back several years in the past. Even variations of names (Thomas, Tom, Tommy) all have connotations for many people. My little brother might go by the more-formal Thomas professionally, but to me he'll always be Tommy Joe.
Think about the names in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter book series. Professor Snape's first name 'Severus' means 'serious, strict, severe,' and those are the connotations we also have with his character. Similarly, Dolores Umbridge's name comes from 'dolor' meaning 'pain,' and the similar-sounding word 'umbrage' denotes 'resentment,' which the character carries a lot of in the novels. Even if you didn't know the meanings of these names, after reading even one of the books you will forever associate the name 'Severus Snape' with his 'severe' personality.
Denotation and connotation are tools used by writers to convey the literal and figurative in a work of literature. Denotation is the literal definition of a word, where the name Sistrunk Boulevard tells people where they are. Connotation is the figurative meaning of a word, the global and personal associations words carry. Connotations can vary based on individual experiences and cultures, which is why two groups of people in Fort Lauderdale, Florida have very different responses to the seemingly-innocuous name Sistrunk.