Denotation & Connotation


One of the things that makes English difficult to understand is the use of denotation and connotation.

In this set of lessons we have looked at similes and metaphors which get their meaning through connotation.

Connotations are often cultural and can be very difficult to understand by just looking at the words or checking your dictionary.

For example:

If you ask someone if they are warm enough (do they need a jacket, do they need the heat turned up, etc.),

they might reply by saying: "No, I'm ok. In fact, I'm as snug as a bug in a rug."

They seem to be saying that they feel like an insect in a carpet. Actually, they are saying that they feel very warm and cozy and are using a funny simile to make you understand that they don't need to be any warmer.

Simile: ...snug as a bug in a rug...

Denotation: I feel like an insect in a carpet.

Connotation: I feel very warm. I am comfortable.

You can think of denotation as the 'actual' meaning of the words (what the words literally say) and you can thing of connotation as the cultural meaning (sometimes called the 'associated' meaning) of the words. Many idioms in English and almost all similes use this associated meaning.

I give my students a little trick to help them remember the difference between denotation and connotation. You might find it useful.

In music, there is such a thing as the sound "d". You can walk up to a piano and press a key to make the "d" note.

There is no such thing as a "conn" key on the piano.

Therefore, "d" for "denotation" is real - the real meaning of the words;

however, "conn" for "connotation" is not real - it is the associated or cultural meaning of the words.


If you look at the table below, you will see the denotation and the connotation of the similes we explored in quiz # 6.

He is as cool as a cucumber. His temperature is cold like a vegetable that has been in the fridge.
He never gets upset or displays emotions. He is very calm.
She is as solid as a rock. She is hard like a piece of stone.
You can depend on her.
That book is as old as the hills. That book is as old as a hill.
That book is very old.
It is as plain as the nose on my face. It is as plain like my nose.
It is easy to see or understand.
My throat is as dry as a bone. A piece of bone is very dry.
I need a drink.
She is as innocent as a new-born baby. She is like a baby.
She is not guilty; she is innocent of doing anything bad.
This car is as fast as lightning. This car is as fast as electrical fire from the sky.
This car is very fast.
This laptop computer is as light as a feather.
This computer weighs the same as a feather.
This laptop computer is very light.

He is as straight as an arrow.

This road is as straight as an arrow.

He resembles an arrow in shape.

This road resembles an arrow in shape.

He is very honest.

This road is very straight.

That house is as pretty as a picture. The house looks like a picture.
The house is very pretty.
I feel like a fish out of water. I feel like a fish that is not in water any more.
I feel uncomfortable.

When we are using similes, we are focusing on the connotation of the words. On the chart above it is the connotation that you should focus on to understand what the similes mean.

Let's look at denotation and connotation used in other situations.