This lesson is about how words can have direct and emotional connections to every reader. Words and their meanings are important because you need to be able to clearly communicate your ideas and feelings in the most concise way. Think of the process that parents go through when naming their children. Some parents use names they have loved forever; others go to bookstores and research hundreds of baby names. Some parents may have an emotional connection to a name because it belongs to a respected person in the family or someone who inspired them. In the same way, companies also carefully choose the names of new products. The car industry, for example, names the newest models of cars, trucks, and SUVs to focus their audience on the features they want to emphasize.

The simple dictionary definition of a word is its denotation. This is the literal, unambiguous meaning of a word. A denotation of snake is “a limbless, slithering reptile without eyelids, sometimes poisonous.” It’s easy to remember what a denotative meaning is, because “denotation” and “dictionary” both begin with the letter “d.”

Other words that authors use have indirect, personal meanings. These words can affect readers in different ways. The term for this kind of meaning is connotation. An example of connotative meaning is the word “blue” (i.e., “I’m feeling blue”). It’s easy to remember what the connotative meaning of a word is because “connotation” and “connection“ both begin with the letter “c.”


Image of Burmese Python

Denotation = Dictionary (dictionary definition of a word)
Connotation = Connection (emotional associations attached to a word)


Here’s another way to understand denotation and connotation using the word “snake.”

  • Snake, denotative use: Be careful hiking during the day; snakes may be out looking for water.
  • Snake, connotative use: Ralph Fiennes’ character in the new movie is a total sellout, a cowardly snake.

Now that you have a basis for understanding denotation and connotation, here are some questions to ponder as you study this lesson:

  1. What do I already know about connotation and denotation?
  2. How can knowing a word’s connotative meaning help when reading a short story?

Think about what you already know about connotation and denotation from past English lessons, conversations with friends, what you have seen in movies, and what you have heard in music. If your favorite uncle gives you $25 every time he sees you, you are probably going to think favorably of him. You likely won’t describe him as “fat” to your friends, but you might say that he’s “tubby,” or if he’s a serious kind of guy, you might say he's “portly.” Knowing the difference between “fat,” “tubby,” and “portly” when you describe your uncle is important to your financial well being!

When you’re reading, it’s important to be able to distinguish words according to their emotional or cultural meaning. Your ability to do so can help you understand the author’s purpose or more about a character in a story. For example the words that a character uses can tell you their level of education, where they’re from, and their class. Connotation and denotation are a part of language and communication. Knowing the difference between these two words can help you understand the purpose of a passage you’re reading.

Images used in this section:

Source: Burmese Python 4, Tambako the Jaguar, Flickr

Names and Meaning

several images of babies

What will these babies be named? Will the girls be Stephanie, Jessica, Yolanda, or Jennifer? Will the boys be Robert, Drew, Rafael, or Marshall?

As we discussed in the previous section, most parents carefully choose the names of their children, taking into account family values, interesting meanings, and the people who have inspired them. In other words, they may consider a name’s connotation. Parents in the United States are unlikely to name their little boy “Adolf,” because the name is associated with Adolf Hitler and has a negative connotation.

To understand why names and words matter, you will research information about your name and use a graphic organizer to write about your findings. To get started, follow these steps:

  • Go to: //
  • Type in your FIRST name.
  • When the results are shown, look for “Origin” and click “more.” If you can’t find your name, try using a search engine to search for “your name+meaning” in the search box (i.e., “Rachel+meaning” or “Jayson+meaning”).
  • Your name’s origin and meanings will be listed along with similar names.

Graphic Organizer Icon
Click on the link for the graphic organizer titled “What’s in a Name?”. Download it and type your responses on-screen or print this file and write your answers. When you are finished with the graphic organizer, return to the lesson. Graphic Organizer Instructions

Let’s see if you can match some famous names with the emotions they evoke. Think about whether the associated emotion is positive or negative. Some names may have more than one connotative meaning. Do you associate the name Homer with Homer Simpson? If so, is Homer bumbling, lazy, funny, or all of the above? Those words can have positive or negative connotations. The Simpsons episode “Homer’s Odyssey” plays with another possible connotation—the Greek poet Homer.

In the activity below, drag each adjective to the name it best describes. Some of the names below have many connotations, so the best choice is a matter of opinion. For example, you might think Odysseus should be paired with the connotation of “courageous,” while I might associate this adjective with Martin Luther King Jr. Because of these differences, you will need to work to find each match. The objective is to become aware of how words and names can carry indirect or implied meaning.

Cartoon illustration of Martin Luther King, Jr.
A name carries connotations, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. The connotation of a word can also be positive or negative, and knowing the implied meaning of a word can help you better understand what you’re reading.
Images used in this section: Source: Pictures of babies, MS Office Clip Art Source: Martin Luther King, Jr., MS Office Clip Art

Cars and Connotations

Volkswagen Beetle parked in front of a yellow building.

Car makers have the ability to name a newly designed vehicle to evoke emotions in consumers and entice them to purchase the vehicle. A sampling of car manufacturers and their vehicles appear in the activity you are about to do. What words come to mind for each model? For example, if someone drives a Lexus, the word “luxury” might come to mind. For this activity, drag and drop each word or phrase below next to the car model it best describes. Don’t worry; this is just for fun. We won’t make you drive a clunker if you guess incorrectly!

orange classic muscle car
blue classic convertible car

Now that you see how the meanings of names, and therefore words, are important, it’s time for you to look at connotative meaning in reading and writing.

Images used in this section: Source: Car in front of a yellow building, MS Office Clip Art Source: Orange classic car with stripe, MS Office Clip Art Source: Blue classic convertible, MS Office Clip Art

24 Words, 24 Connotations

Graphic Organizer Icon
Now try an activity with some words that you may come across in your reading. For this activity, you will complete a chart that contains 12 pairs of words. Open the chart by clicking the “Connotations Chart” link. Follow the directions in the chart to complete the activity. When you are finished, return to this section. Graphic Organizer Instructions

Now that you have worked through the “Connotations Chart,” would you rather meet someone described as “strong-willed” or “stubborn”? “Curious” or “nosey”? Each of these words has similar definitions, but the emotional connections or connotations make the difference in how the words are interpreted.

Five Activities for Five Words

Collage of images: cartoon pig staring straight ahead, cat staring at a fish in a bowl, football player staring straight ahead, tiger staring off to the left

Each of the pictures in this section is a visual representation of the word “stare.” Look at how all four representations can be interpreted differently (in order): funny, fervent, serious, and scary.

Graphic Organizer Icon
For the next exercise, you will work with another graphic organizer. Click the icon to open it and then follow the directions for the activity. When you are finished, close the graphic organizer and go to the next section. Graphic Organizer Instructions
Images used in this section: Source: Images of “stare“, MS Office Clip Art

Your Turn: Reading for Meaning

Graphic Organizer Icon
In this section, you will download a graphic organizer, read a short passage, and answer some questions about the reading. Click to download the graphic organizer and then follow the instructions. When you are finished with it, return to this point in the lesson. Graphic Organizer Instructions

Now read the passage again—this time in the box below.

A drawing of a mean-looking woman in antique clothes, cartoon skulls floating in the background
(1) He was sliding back into the seat by his beaming mother before he surreptitiously opened the blue box with “Balfour” printed on it. (2) The shiny gold medal threw reflected lights into his shining eyes. (3) For the first time he thought of the ten points it represented. (4) Hello, beautiful, he greeted it silently. (5) Three weeks later the UDC meeting was held at the big house. (6) He yielded to his childish urge and crept on all fours beneath one of the living room windows opening onto the verandah. (7) He slowly raised his head and peered through a breeze-floated lace curtain. (8) Miss Beauty Graves sat on the edge of her seat, teacup gripped in rigidly curved talons, glittering chain to her pince nez fastened daintily in her jet black hair, her mouth a scarlet slash in the stark whiteness of her powdered face. (9) “I tell you, Mrs. Osborne,” she announced—all the hum of ladies stilled—“that boy of yours is sure to Go Far.”

In this excerpt, the main character, Peter, has just won the debate tournament—something that is quite a challenge for students—and is walking back to his chair. The author writes that Peter is “sliding back into the seat.” As readers, we know that he did not boastfully take his seat and garner attention for himself. The word “slide” connotes that he doesn't want to be noticed. As readers, we understand that Peter is a shy character.

Peter then surreptitiously opens the box that holds his gold medal for winning the tournament. Do you know what “surreptitiously” means? The denotation for this word is “done in a concealed or underhand way to escape notice, especially disapproval.” Peter is sneaking a look at the award he has already received, and he’s not quite comfortable with winning.

By using connotation and denotation, the author has reinforced the idea that Peter is humble. As readers, we use connotation and denotation to think about the tone of the passage we’re reading. Writers want readers to “feel” something as we read, so they give us clues; those clues are the words that they choose to use. If those words have connotative power, then it’s easier for the reader to understand the feeling or tone of the piece. Think about all of the words used to describe Miss Beauty Graves. Her name is Beauty, but the words the author uses to describe her tell us that something about her is less than beautiful. Read the following sentences and notice how the author describes Miss Beauty.

A close-up photograph of bird talons.
  1. She has talons that are rigidly curved.
  2. She grips her teacup with those talons.
  3. Her mouth is a slash in a stark white face.

Does the writer want us to think Miss Beauty is beautiful, or does he want us to think something else? It seems that he wants us to think that she is to be feared, like a bird of prey such as a hawk or a vulture. Miss Beauty also has great power; she “stills” the voices of the other ladies when she begins to speak. What does the writer want us to feel as we read his description of Miss Beauty? What is the tone? We can likely say that this part of the passage has a negative tone. The author has given us more information through his choice of words. He tells us that Miss Beauty has power over the ladies in the room and maybe over the narrator too. She may even be feared the way a small animal fears a hawk or other bird of prey.

How does knowing this information add to your reading experience? As you continue to be an active reader, think about how authors use words to evoke emotions. You will see that names and words choices are made intentionally to help you understand what you read.

Images used in this section: Source: “Myfair Livia,” Dr Case, Flickr Source: I'd hate to be a mouse, pmeidinger, Flickr


Resources Used in This Lesson: Bibliography

Sams, Ferrol. Run with the Horsemen. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.