Denotation is the act of using a word or symbol to signify an explicit meaning or set of meanings. The particular meaning of a word or symbol is its denotation. Get a denotation definition along with several examples of denotation in literature, denotation symbols, and other fun denotations like zodiac signs.
Denotation: Literary Definition
The most common type of denotation that you’ll come across is in literature. Denotation means the literal definition of a word. To give an example, the denotation for blue is the color blue.
The girl was blue.
You mean the girl was quite literally the color blue.
You are a dog.
You mean that the animal is literally a carnivorous domesticated animal with fur and a snout.
Still a bit confused? Look at these denotation sentence examples.
- The boy was pushy. (He was literally pushing people.)
- She was cold. (She was cold in temperature.)
- It was too hard. (The object was too firm.)
- The dog is a mutt. (The dog is a mix of several breeds.)
- Trevor is a bull. (The bull is named Trevor.)
- The woman was frugal. (The woman is economical when spending money.)
- He was bull-headed. (He literally has a head of a bull.)
When you take the literal meaning of a sentence, it can get pretty funny. For example, imagine if someone said,
He has a lot of dough.
As a denotation, it means they are up to their elbows in dough and ready for baking. Denotation can easily get confused with connotation. Therefore, it is important to look at connotation vs. denotation.
Denotation and Connotation
While denotation is the literal meaning of the word, connotation is a feeling or indirect meaning. For example:
- Denotation: blue (color blue)
- Connotation: blue (feeling sad)
Depending on whether you are using connotation or denotation, the sentence, “She was blue” could mean she was literally blue or she was sad. Here’s another example to really drive this home.
- Denotation: dog (animal)
- Connotation: dog (ugly)
Again the sentence, “You are a dog” could have two different meanings. You are saying they are an animal or ugly. Knowing whether a writer is using connotation or denotation depends on the text surrounding the passage. Let’s check out a few literary examples.
Denotation in Literature
From poets to novelists, denotation is used all over the literary world. Explore a few different examples.
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth
In his passage, Wordsworth means actual flowers when he talks about “golden daffodils." Additionally, in the phrase “beside the lake, beneath the trees” the lake and trees are taken by their denotative meanings.
"When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze."
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In this passage from To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus means courage in the literal sense. The author is using denotation to find courage as “strength or bravery in the face of adversity or pain."
"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what."
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
In the book series Harry Potter, Hagrid refers to Harry as a "wizard." This is a use of denotation because Harry is actually a wizard, as in the magical being. Hagrid was not using this as a connotation to mean Harry was smart, but that he's an actual wizard.
"Harry -- yer a wizard."
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
In this excerpt from the novel, Hemingway is using the literal meaning of expatriate or "someone living outside their home country." The main character, Jake Barnes, is an American living in Paris.
"You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you."
Other Denotation Examples
There are other literal meanings of words or phrases that can be denotations. Explore a few fun examples.
Denotation Symbol Examples
Symbols have important denotations or literal meanings. They are often used as math symbols but could be used for other purposes. Check out common examples.
- @ is at
- # is number
- % is percent
- $ is dollars
- + is plus
- - is minus
- = is equals
- < is less than
- > is more than
Examples of Denotation in the Zodiac
Zodiac denotations are important to know your signs. Explore the denotations of zodiac signs where the name of the sign literally means a specific range of birth dates.
- Aries (ram) = March 21 - April 19
- Taurus (bull) = April 20 - May 20
- Gemini (twins) = May 21 - June 20
- Cancer (crab) = June 21 - July 22
- Leo (lion) = July 23 - August 22
- Virgo (virgin) = August 23 - September 22
- Libra (scale) = September 23 - October 22
- Scorpio (scorpion) = October 23 - November 21
- Sagittarius (archer) = November 22 - December 21
- Capricorn (sea-goat) = December 22 - January 19
- Aquarius (water bearer) = January 20 - February 18
- Pisces (fish) = February 19 - March 20
Getting Literal With Denotation
You’ve had a little fun with denotation. While it might seem denotation just has a few examples, as you can see, denotation meanings cover several areas and examples. Now that you’ve got a good grasp on denotation, you might want to take a look at connotative words and examples.