What Is Connotation?

(View all literary devices)

Much like symbols, words have meanings on more than one level. There is the literal meaning, also known as denotation. And then there is a cultural or associative meaning. This is connotation. For instance, a heart is a muscle that pumps blood. That is its denotative meaning. Its connotative meaning is warmth, love, and generosity.

Connotation may vary widely from culture to culture depending on accepted practices, myths, and history. For instance, in the West people associate rats with disease and pestilence. To say that someone is “a rat” means they are sneaky and dishonorable. However, in the East, rats have a much more favorable connotation. They are a lucky Chinese zodiac animal, and in the Hindu temple of Karni Mata, in India, the black rats are revered guests.

In general, people consider statements to have a positive or negative connotation. Consider the difference in meaning between these two sentences:

  • She is industrious and outspoken.
  • She’s a loud-mouthed grind

Using connotative language helps to deepen the meaning of a piece of literature because readers bring their connotative understanding of the words to the literary work. Connotation also helps a writer to develop tone since some connotations are especially emotionally charged.

Examples of Connotation

Connotation Example 1. “Though wise men at their end know dark is right,/Because their words had forked no lightning they/Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” subverts the normal connotation of “gentle,” “dark,” and “night” so that he can enhance his symbolic meaning.

Connotation Example 2. “A house is not a home.” This statement plays on our cultural connotation of “home” as something comforting, as opposed to a “house,” which is just a building.

Connotation Example 3. Come on. Have a heart.

Connotation Example 4. “My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body; and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fiber of my my frame.” Poe use of “fiendish malevolence”  in “The Black Cat” has an abstract connotation that suits the character’s intellectual distance from his own violent actions.

Connotation Example 5. I’m not nagging you. I’m just reminding you what you need to do. Two words that mean the same thing can have a completely different connotation.

Connotation Example 6. He’s such a pig.