Denotation and Connotation

From Chandler (1995): “Beyond its ‘literal’ meaning (its denotation), a particular word may have connotations: for instance, sexual connotations. ‘Is there any such thing as a single entendre?’ quipped the comic actor Kenneth Williams (we all know that ‘a thing is a phallic symbol if it’s longer than it’s wide’, as the singer Melanie put it). In semiotics, denotation and connotation are terms describing the relationship between the signifier and its signified, and an analytic distinction is made between two types of signifieds: a denotative signified and a connotative signified. Meaning includes both denotation and connotation.”

As Roland Barthes noted, Saussure’s model of the sign focused on denotation at the expense of connotation and it was left to subsequent theorists (notably Barthes himself) to offer an account of this important dimension of meaning (Barthes 1967, 89ff). In ‘The Photographic Message’ (1961) and ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’ (1964), Barthes argued that in photography connotation can be (analytically) distinguished from denotation (Barthes 1977, 15-31, 32-51). As Fiske puts it ‘denotation is what is photographed, connotation is how it is photographed’ (Fiske 1982, 91). However, in photography, denotation is foregrounded at the expense of connotation.

The photographic signifier seems to be virtually identical with its signified, and the photograph appears to be a ‘natural sign’ produced without the intervention of a code (Hall 1980, 132). Barthes initially argued that only at a level higher than the ‘literal’ level of denotation, could a code be identified – that of connotation. By 1973 Barthes had shifted his ground on this issue. In analysing the realist literary text Barthes came to the conclusion that ‘denotation is not the first meaning, but pretends to be so; under this illusion, it is ultimately no more than the last of the connotations (the one which seems both to establish and close the reading), the superior myth by which the text pretends to return to the nature of language, to language as nature’ (Barthes 1974, 9). Connotation, in short, produces the illusion of denotation, the illusion of language as transparent and of the signifier and the signified as being identical.

Thus denotation is just another connotation. From such a perspective denotation can be seen as no more of a ‘natural’ meaning than is connotation but rather as a process of naturalization. Such a process leads to the powerful illusion that denotation is a purely literal and universal meaning which is not at all ideological, and indeed that those connotations which seem most obvious to individual interpreters are just as ‘natural’.

Consequently, whilst theorists may find it analytically useful to distinguish connotation from denotation, in practice such meanings cannot be neatly separated. Most semioticians argue that no sign is purely denotative – lacking connotation. Valentin Voloshinov insisted that no strict division can be made between denotation and connotation because ‘referential meaning is moulded by evaluation… meaning is always permeated with value judgement’ (Voloshinov 1973, 105). There can be no neutral, objective description which is free of an evaluative element. David Mick and Laura Politi note that choosing not to differentiate denotation and connotation is allied to regarding comprehension and interpretation as similarly inseparable (Mick & Politi 1989, 85).

According to Barthes, the principle of myth is that it transforms history into nature. Signs and codes are generated by myths and in turn serve to maintain them. Popular usage of the term ‘myth’ suggests that it refers to beliefs which are demonstrably false, but the semiotic use of the term does not necessarily suggest this. Myths can be seen as extended metaphors. Like metaphors, myths help us to make sense of our experiences within a culture (Lakoff & Johnson 1980, 185-6). They express and serve to organize shared ways of conceptualizing something within a culture. Semioticians in the Saussurean tradition treat the relationship between nature and culture as relatively arbitrary (Lévi-Strauss 1972, 90, 95). For Barthes, myths serve the ideological function of naturalization (Barthes 1977, 45-6). Their function is to naturalize the cultural – in other words, to make dominant cultural and historical values, attitudes and beliefs seem entirely ‘natural’, ‘normal’, self-evident, timeless, obvious ‘common-sense’ – and thus objective and ‘true’ reflections of ‘the way things are’.


Chandler, D (1995), Semiotics for Beginners, viewed on 21, May 2005,