Connotation and Denotation: Would You Wear a Saliva Tree?
Friday 11th January, 2019
Semantics of style

Above are two very different images. On the left is an orange-red velvet dress embroidered with silver, from Unicorn. On the right, a detail from Sphere's cover illustration for The Saliva Tree, a science-fiction short-story collection by Brian Aldiss. The title story was rated by one reviewer as truly horrifying: an evaluation reflected in the illustration. Now, the saliva tree and the silver sprays both have "bits sticking out". But you would not want to wear the saliva tree on a dress, even were I to erase the mouth. What makes the two so different?

This question is related to the topic of my post "Assertive, Rigid, Rude, Sad, Unattractive, and Coarse: I Chose My Font Well for Mrs May's Speech" about the personalities that people associate with typefaces. We associate personalities with decoration too, and I suspect this is for much the same reasons. What are they?

Part of the answer is denotation: what the picture actually represents. In the case of the saliva tree, this is a HIDEOUS THING WITH FANGS, drooling. But there's also connotation. The site explains the difference thus:

Although both words broadly mean "to signify" they are technically quite different. "Denote" refers to the literal primary meaning of something, whereas "connote" signifies the attributes of a word aside from its primary meaning.

I've was prompted to consider this topic when seeking a font in which to render part of Theresa May's "Citizen of Nowhere" speech, but it's something I'd intended to discuss anyway. How might we build a Style Reader: that is, a program that can analyse decorations and predict their personalities? I shall give some thoughts on this in future posts. For the moment, here are some more images.

A motif from my Artesania Pop Wuh waistcoat. It 
looks like a light-blue/purple ear of wheat or fern leaf.

The same motif flipped vertically, so that the 
tip is at the bottom.

A motif from my velvet evening bag. It is gold 
on black, forming a bunch of three leaves pointing down. The central leaf 
is vertical, and the other two are symmetrically arranged
around it, curving down to the left and down to the right.

The same motif flipped vertically, so that the 
leaves are pointing up.

A single element from my Jake paisley velvet 
jacket. It is a gold teardrop-shaped motif on black. The small end is 
curved in on itself, bent down and to the left. The same motif turned clockwise by 90 
The same motif turned anticlockwise by 90 

The same motif turned clockwise by 180 

A cartoon of Pogo the alligator. He has a long 
rightward-pointing tail, a short leftward-pointing foot (his other foot is 
less visible), and a stubby leftward-pointing nose.

The Chinese character 'fang'. It looks like a 
lowercase 'h' with a horizontal bar on top, and a dot above that. The back 
of the 'h' is slanted from lower left to upper right, and the short 
rightmost vertical is slanted the same way, with its lower part bent under 
like a foot. The whole thing is rather like a person, with the dot for the 
head, the horizontal bar for arms, and the lower part for legs and a 

The Chinese character 'jin'. It looks like 
a capital 'F' with a vertical line added beneath the lower horizontal 
line. The back of the 'F' is slanted slightly from lower left to upper 
right, and the top horizontal line bends slightly upwards, as though 

A dog standing on its hind legs, front paws 
extended, mouth open expectantly.

The logo of Norwest Holst. 
It's a capital 'N' joined to a capital 'H'. Both are standing on the 
ground. They join at centre-front, with the 'N' coming diagonally from 
back left and the 'H' going diagonally to back right. So they form the 
front two faces of a cube. The inner sides of the verticals of the 'H' are 
slanted so that they look like girders. Both letters are squat, blocky, 
and powerful-looking.

Two small boys standing covered in dough. It is 
dripping in coils to the ground from their hands, and teardrop-shaped 
pieces are dripping from their hair, noses, and fingers. The surface of 
the dough is smooth and gently curved.

A shape that looks like a 
star but irregular. It has seven pointy bits sticking out.

A shape that also has seven bits sticking out, 
but they are gently curved, like pseudopods.