Denotation and Connotation
Meaning is also affected by the denotation and connotation of particular words. Denotation is the objective reference of a wordthat is, its factual, concrete meaning. Dictionary definitions present denotations. Some words are primarily denotative, but most words also possess less definable connotations. Connotation refers to meanings beyond the objective reference. The word automobile, for example, denotes a four-wheeled motor vehicle. Yet it may connote little or nothing to one person, anger to someone who has just been fired from an automobile factory, and pleasure to someone who has just bought a new sports car. Very specific wordschair, desk, book, and so forthare usually without connotation for most people. Other words, such as obsolete and respectable, can fall either way, depending on context, while words such as fantastic and horrible are almost totally connotative in nature.
We acquire our connotations from social and personal experiences. The word farm means something different to a city dweller than to a country person. The more two people have in commonthe more similar their backgrounds, past experiences, attitudes, and outlooksthe better chance they have of attaching the same meaning to a word or concept.
Consider the following situation. Ingrid is talking with her parents, and all is going well. They are communicating for a change. Then the conversation turns to the subject of drugs. Communication quickly comes to an end, Ingrid and her parents stop communicating because they have different connotations for the word drug. But the word is only a small part of a larger problem. Ingrid, her mother, and her father have different attitudes about many things, and this difference in attitudes influences the connotations they attach to words. The end result of these differing connotations is often a breakdown in communication.
Barker, L.L. & Roach Gaut, D. (2002). Communication, 8/e, Boston: Allyn & Bacon, pp. 38-39.