A denotation is the precise and exact definition of a word. A connotation is the secondary or implied meaning of a word, based of the common feeling associated with the word. Connotations can vary based on geography and culture, and may change over time. The word "connotation" stems from Medieval Latin and came into common use in England in the mid 1500s.
Connotation describes the images and feelings called up by a particular word, rather than its strict definition. For example, the adjectives "mad" and "furious" both denote that someone is angry. "Furious," however, evokes an image of a much stronger, more intense feeling. This is connotation.
Another example would be to compare the words "work" and "toil." Both denote exerting oneself. To say that a man works, however, could mean that he expends great effort or simply that he has a job. To say that a man toils conjures up an impression of someone who labors very hard, probably in a physical job, and possibly in a very difficult situation.
Understanding both the denotation and connotation of words can help people convey their meanings more clearly. Writers often use connotation to great effect in books, songs and plays. For example, rather than saying that a night was dark, a writer who wants to create a feeling of foreboding might instead say that the night was pitch black.
Word choice is also important in marketing and advertising. For example, a product advertised as "new," will garner a different response than one advertised as "unfamiliar," even though both words have very similar denotations. "New," however, connotes "fresh" and "exciting" whereas "unfamiliar" connotes "strange" and "uncomfortable."
Other professions also find connotation important. Speechwriters, for instance, can create very different impressions based on the words they choose. So can reporters, public relations professionals, politicians, attorneys and negotiators.
Knowing what a particular word connotes can also help prevent misunderstandings. While a word might appear to have a benign definition, its emotional meaning might easily be inflammatory or insulting. This can be a particular problem for nonnative speakers of a language.
A nonnative English speaker, for example, might describe someone's skin as "pasty," meaning that the person has very fair or pale skin. In English, however, the word "pasty," when applied to skin tone, connotes a complexion that is very white, unattractive, and quite possibly unhealthy. The speaker might easily offend the individual in question without meaning to, simply because he is unfamiliar with the connotation of the word "pasty."