Denotative vs. Connotative Meaning

As the example above illustrates, we as speakers, cannot know the intimate details of our audience’s lives, and we may not always be able to predict which examples or words will arouse strong emotions within our listeners. Even an ordinary word used in an everyday context might lead to negative associations for some of our listeners. Let’s look at an example. If I use the word “pig ” in a presentation, I am probably correct in assuming that most if not all of my listeners will associate that word with its denotative meaning, a farm animal. The denotative meaning of a word is simply the commonly accepted meaning or the definition that you would find if you were to look up that word in a dictionary. But the word “pig ” can have more than one meaning for some listeners, depending on the context in which the word is used and the past experiences of the listener. We refer to these other meanings as the connotative meaning .

Typically, the connotative meaning of a word has more of an emotional association and is more likely to trigger an emotional response than the denotative meaning. To continue the example above a bit further, assume that at least one listener in my audience grew up during the 1960s. This listener might hear the word “pig ” and immediately associate the word with a derogatory term used at that time to refer to a police officer. While we assume that this misinterpretation would become quickly apparent and perhaps humorous to the listener as the speech continued, the fact remains that the speaker has lost the attention of at least one audience member, however briefly, due to the idiosyncrasy of language.