Semantics is a branch of linguistics that looks at the meanings of words and language, including the symbolic use of language. It also refers to the multiple meanings of words as well.
Two terms that are related to semantics are connotation and denotation. Connotation refers to the meanings that we associate with the word-beyond the literal dictionary definition. The connotation of a word includes all of the emotions and feelings that go along with the use of the word. Denotation includes the literal definition of the word.
When we read literature we are looking at language that is used to denote and connote meaning. Semantics is the study and analysis of how language is used figuratively and literally to produce meaning. Semantics seeks to describe how words are used-not to prescribe how they should be used.
A toy block could be called a block, a cube, a toy.
A child could be called a child, kid, boy, girl, son, daughter.
The word "run" has many meanings-physically running, depart or go (I have to run, spent (it has run its course), or even a snag in a pair of hose (a run in my hose).
Examples of Semantics in Literature:
In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet refers to the abstract concept of the meaning of a name by comparing Romeo to a flower:
O, be some other name!
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called.
William Wordsworth seeks to describe how he feels when reflecting on a beautiful image of daffodils, even after the fact. He uses metaphorical language to figuratively describe how his heart "dances":
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
is the bliss of solitude;
then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Walt Whitman refers to Abraham Lincoln as a "captain" and America as a "ship" in his famous poem after Lincoln's death:
Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
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