Denotative and connotative meaning of Imagery



Excerpt from Mark Twain’s Roughing It

“Then he poured for us a beverage which he called “Slum gullion,” and it is hard to think he was not inspired when he named it. It really pretended to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler. He had no sugar and no milk—not even a spoon to stir the ingredients with. We could not eat the bread or the meat, nor drink the “slumgullion.” And when I looked at that melancholy vinegar-cruet, I thought of the anecdote (a very, very old one, even at that day) of the traveler who sat down to a table which had nothing on it but a mackerel and a pot of mustard. He asked the landlord if this was all. The landlord said: “All! Why, thunder and lightning, I should think there was mackerel enough there for six.” “But I don’t like mackerel.” “Oh—then help yourself to the mustard.” In other days I had considered it a good, a very good, anecdote, but there was a dismal plausibility about it, here, that took all the humor out of it. Our breakfast was before us, but our teeth were idle. I tasted and smelt, and said I would take coffee, I believed. The station-boss stopped dead still, and glared at me speechless. At last, when he came to, he turned away and said, as one who communes with himself upon a matter too vast to grasp “Coffee! Well, if that don’t go clean ahead of me, I’m d—-d!”(Twain)


Slum Gullion (no known use before Twain’s usage in Roughing It per Merrian Webster). (SlumGullion)


Twain’s Definition slum gullion: “Slum gullion,” and it is hard to think he was not inspired when he named it. It really pretended to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler”  (his definition/denotative) (Twain).


Connotation from the poor inn keeper’s perspective: a drink to quench your thirst after a long day on the dusty trail

Connotation from the rich traveler’s perspective: a derogatory term for a drink made for or by poor, uneducated people who live or come from overpopulated, urban areas


What is interesting about Twain’s use of these words (as well as his definition) is that he is the first to have documented it in writing. His definition is also the only reference to it being a tea. The word was adopted two decades later to define a stew, but no ingredients have ever been recorded with it so it may be one of those melting pot type of references meaning a recipe with a bit of this and a bit of that in it. He also used it as two words whereas the beef stew reference from the 1890s is one word. The dictionary references Mark Twain’s use as the first known use of these two words, so he may well have been the one who coined both the word and the meaning as being something made from various ingredients. Interestingly enough, the words slum and gullion may give the best clue as to why such a phrase was coined by Twain in this story since the character was an outsider to the Wild West way of doing things since the speaker is using the man who made the tea as his reasoning for such a use of the term ‘slumgullion.” As many people who went to the Wild West came from overpopulated areas from the Eastern colonies, this shows that Twain used his knowledge of commonly used vocabulary (slum and gullion) to redefine its meanings as one entirely new phrase. Later, British English adopted the word to change its meaning once again, but the ideology behind Twain’s use can still be found in that no one dares to say what exactly goes into the meat stew. This is a good example of how a word is coined and adapted to the people using it. As Twain’s characters were of two different classes, it helps to interpret the use of the term slum gullion because it was a word the traveler was being introduced to by the poorer western character, yet the traveler is the one who defined the term for the readers. This defines how one word can have two differential meanings depending on the person hearing/saying it. One was using the term as beverage while the other was interpreting it literally which is seen in his reaction of refusing to drink it because he did not consider it any form of tea he had ever drank. This entire passage was creative and humorous.


Slum: a densely populated usually urban area marked by crowding, dirty run-down housing, poverty, and social disorganization (Slum)

Gullion: A Vile worthless person (British English) (Gullion).

Slum Gullion: A tea with unidentifiable ingredients that poor people made and drank in the Wild West around 1872 (Twain)

Slumguillon: A meat stew (1890)  (slumgullion)


Grammar notations:

Twain seems to reassign slum’s meaning as an adjective it seems as slum (slum: poor and gullion: drink) was solely used as a noun before 1872, But, here it seems to be used as a means of describing the gullion. Later, it was compounded to mean a meat stew, which was a later morphology of grammar use by the people changing the meaning from a beverage to a food. So, if one were looking at the use of each word during the late 1800s, one might use tea as a synonym to define a drink. If a reader were reading it in the 1900s, one might relate it to a brew or a stew. Twain clearly defines it as a tea, but by the 1900s, the word had changed meanings from a synonym (beverage/tea) to an antonym (tea/brew) from its first use by Twain. There are also two different class perspectives present in this paragraph, so one might interpret it as a reader who is poor or a reader who is rich (to find a personal meaning as to what he meant by slum gullion. If you came from a poor background, you might find the speaker to be snobby. But, if you were the person born to a higher social class, you might find the inn keeper as one from a slum who ran away from real society. So, perspective is everything to connotation. As I read this meaning as the speaker being from a different social class, I assume the connotation is being used as a derogatory meaning. But in all literature, reader reaction holds the greatest perspective as to meaning. I found the speaker to be haughty, so he could very well be influencing the meaning from his view of the inn keeper as being from a lower class of people who would normally drink such a brew.  As Twain used the anecdote as an example, the tea would have been the mackerel and the mustard the slum guillon to earlier eras, but the wording here shows a man who saw himself too good for either one. So, this language helped to further define the way the traveler say the slum guillon.  However, that same anecdote spoke to how many people would have been happy with it as it was a means to eat and drink where very few opportunities existed on a long, dusty trail. It reminded me of my mother when I complained about something on the table. She would never have made me something else. She was a person who believed you ate what was given or nothing at all because of necessity. Rich people would have made their servants get something else. So, this entire passage defines class systems during the 1870s perfectly. So, as a reader response, my mother was the inn keeper, and I was the traveler. Those type of responses by readers is what makes Twain such a memorable writer.


Our textbook defines synonym and antonym as, “words that supposedly mean the same thing” and “words that mean the opposite of each other” respectively (Curzan and Adams 214-215).


Synonym for Twain’s meaning: Slum Gullion, beverage, tea, brew

Antonym for Twain’s meaning: Tea: Stew


This is an example of how writers use basic meanings to invent memorable language in their books. It is also a great reminder of how language is adapted by the people using it. Tea was/is fundamentally a household name in both Europe and America, so it might lend credibility to the change in that people did not like it being referenced by Twain as a drink poor, urban people drank. As a stew made with meat and vegetables, however, people seemed to be more comfortable with its definition as anyone could enjoy a bowl of slumgullion without feeling it was only eaten by the poor. I think the change defines denotative versus connotative uses perfectly. It also shows how two word uses can define a negative thought process while compounding the words lesson the verbal assault of their singular meanings.


Curzan, Anne, and Michael Adams.  How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction. Boston: Longman 2012. Print

“Gullion.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 13 July 2017

“Slum.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 13 July 2017.

“Slumgullion.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 13 July 2017.

Twain, Mark, Roughing It, Gutenberg Project, etext, (2006), retrieved on July 13, 2017, from, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3177/3177-h/3177-h.htm


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