The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Connotation: The association(s) evoked by a word beyond its denotation, or literal meaning. A connotation may be perceived and understood by almost everyone if it reflects broad cultural associations, or it may be recognized by comparatively few readers or listeners who have certain knowledge or experience. A connotation may even be unique to a particular individual, whose personal experiences have led him or her to associate a given word with some idea or thing in a way that would not be familiar to others.

EXAMPLES: The word water might commonly evoke thoughts or images of an ocean, a fountain, thirst, or even a water balloon. Less common would be thoughts of the Wicked Witch of the West (from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz [1900]), who melted when Dorothy threw a bucket of water on her, or of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), which includes the famous lines “Water, water, everywhere, / And all the boards did shrink; / Water, water, everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink.” A near-drowning victim might associate water with sheer terror, as would someone who was hydrophobic. A woman whose husband had proposed to her on a canoeing trip might associate water with her engagement ring or, more broadly, her personal happiness.

A passage from Alice Munro’s story “Boys and Girls” (1968) explains connotation without explicitly using the term:

The word girl had formerly seemed to me innocent and unburdened, like the word child; now it appeared that it was no such thing. A girl was not, as I had supposed, simply what I was; it was what I had to become. It was a definition, always touched with reproach and disappointment.

Run-DMC’s rap song “Peter Piper” (1986), which riffs on numerous nursery rhymes and fairy tales, references the “big bad wolf” and the way in which the street meaning of “bad” has become “good.”