Polysemy (Words and Meanings)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Meaning meanings
The word meaning is itself a polyseme. Illustration by Claire Cohen. © 2018 ThoughtCo.

Polysemy is the association of one word with two or more distinct meanings, and a polyseme is a word or phrase with multiple meanings. The word "polysemy" comes from the Greek for "many signs." The adjective forms of the word include polysemous or polysemic.

In contrast, a one-to-one match between a word and a meaning is called "monosemy." In "The Handbook of Linguistics," William Croft notes: "Monosemy is probably most clearly found in specialized vocabulary dealing with technical topics."

According to some estimates, more than 40 percent of English words have more than one meaning. The fact that so many words (or lexemes) are polysemous "shows that semantic changes often add meanings to the language without subtracting any," says M. Lynne Murphy, in "Lexical Meaning."

Examples and Observations

"The word good has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man."

– G.K. Chesterton, "Orthodoxy," 1909

"Have You Met Life Today?"

– Advertising slogan of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, 2001

"Now, the kitchen was the room in which we were sitting, the room where Mama did hair and washed clothes, and where each of us bathed in a galvanized tub. But the word has another meaning, and the 'kitchen' I'm speaking of now is the very kinky bit of hair at the back of the head, where the neck meets the shirt collar. If there ever was one part of our African past that resisted assimilation, it was the kitchen."

– Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "Colored People." Alfred A. Knopf, 1994

Polysemy in Language

"Sports Illustrated can be bought for 1 dollar or 35 million dollars; the first is something you can read and later start a fire with, the second is a particular company that produces the magazine you just read. Such polysemy can give rise to a special ambiguity (He left the bank five minutes ago, He left the bank five years ago). Sometimes dictionaries use history to decide whether a particular entry is a case of one word with two related meanings, or two separate words, but this can be tricky. Even though pupil (eye) and pupil (student) are historically linked, they are intuitively as unrelated as bat (implement) and bat (animal)."

– Adrian Akmajian, et al., "Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication." MIT Press, 2001

"The simplest form of this verb is when it signifies movement forward: 'The advance of the army was rapid.' The word can also mean the state of being in a forward position: 'We were in advance of the rest of the army.' More figuratively, the word can be used to signify promotion in rank or position or salary: 'His advance to stardom was remarkable.' It is also possible to advance an argument in the sense of putting forward reasons for supporting a particular view or course of action: 'I would like to advance the argument that being in debt is a desirable state while interest rates are so low.' "

– David Rothwell, "Dictionary of Homonyms." Wordsworth, 2007

Polysemy in Advertising

"Common polysemic puns involve words like bright, naturally, clearly, where the advertiser will want both meanings. This headline ran above a picture of a sheep:

'Take it from the manufacturer. Wool. It's worth more. Naturally.' (American Wool Council, 1980)

Here the pun is a way of attributing wool, not to a manufacturing industry, but to nature

– Greg Myers, "Words in Ads." Routledge, 1994

As a Graded Phenomenon

"We adopt as a working hypothesis the view that almost every word is more or less polysemous, with senses linked to a prototype by a set of relational semantic principles which incorporate a greater or lesser amount of flexibility. We follow the now common practice in polysemy research and regard polysemy as a graded phenomenon...where contrastive polysemy deals with homonyms such as match (a small stick with a tip which ignites when scraped on a rough surface) and match (contest in a game or sport), whereas complementary polysemy deals with interrelated semantic aspects of a word, such as, in the case of record, for example, the physical object and the music."

– Brigitte Nerlich and David D. Clarke, "Polysemy and Flexibility." Polysemy: Flexible Patterns of Meaning in Mind and Language. Walter de Gruyter, 2003

The Lighter Side of Polysemy

"Leave it to Americans to think that no means yes, pissed means angry, and curse word means something other than a word that's cursed!"

– Excalibur employee in "It Hits the Fan." "South Park," 2001

Lt. Abbie Mills: You sure you want to stay in this old cabin? It's a bit of a fixer-upper.

Ichabod Crane: You and I have very different definitions of old. Seems if a building stays upright for more than a decade, people declare it a national landmark.

– Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison in "John Doe" an episode of the television show "Sleepy Hollow," 2013