Polysemy, Polyseme, Polysemes, and Polysemous

(linguistic terms for words with two or more meanings; usually, multiple meanings of a word or words)

Words with Multiple Applications

Polysemy comes from Neo-Latin polysemia, which comes from Greek polusemous [poly- (many) + sema (sign)] giving us a linguistic term, "having many meanings" or multiple meanings. We also have polyseme (singular) [puh LIS uh mee], and polysemes (plural) [puh LIS uh meez].

The words polysemy [puh LIS uh mee or PAWL i see" mee] and polysemous [puh LIS uh muhs or pawl" ee SEE muhs] are defined as "having or characterized by many meanings; the existence of several meanings for a single word or phrase".

As said earlier, these terms refer to "words" or other "items of language with two or more senses"; for example, "walk" as in "The child started to walk" and "They live at 500 High Walk". Such senses may be more or less distant from one another: walk, "action", walk, "street" are relatively close, but crane, "bird" and crane, "machine" are much further apart.

It is generally agreed that in each case only one word is being discussed, not two that happen to have the same form; to which the name homonym is given.

Senses of the same word are seldom ambiguous in context, but the less specific the context, the greater the possibility of ambiguity; for example, if someone who is looking at a picture says "What big cranes!", it may not be immediately clear to anyone who can not see the picture whether the comment refers to birds or machines.

Polysemy and homonymy

There is an extensive doubtful area between the concepts of polysemy and homonymy. A word like "walk" is polysemous (went walking, went for a walk, walk the dog, Hill Walk Drive), while a word like "bank" is homonymous between at least "bank" for money and the "bank" of a river.

The coexistence of several meanings in one word, which is extremely common, as stated earlier, is called polysemy. Some words develop a whole family of meanings, each new meaning often forming yet another starting point for more definitions.

If in a good dictionary you were to look up such words as "natural, good, loose, free", and "real"; you would be surprised at the number of meanings listed.

Being able to distinguish between polysemy words and homonym words is not easy

Dictionaries treat cases of multiple meanings either as polysemy or as homonymy, but in fact it is not always easy to decide which one we are dealing with, and dictionaries sometimes differ in their decisions.

Are "table" (furniture) and "table" (arrangement of data) two different words, or the same word with two meanings? Dictionaries usually go for the latter solution, on the grounds of a shared etymology.

On the other hand, "a pupil" (in school) and the "pupil" (of the eye) are usually listed as different words; although in fact they have the same historical origin.

Would you identify the following variations in the meanings of "up" as polysemy or homonymy?

There is a two-letter word that perhaps has more meanings than any other English two-letter word, and it is "up".

It's easy to understand up, meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake up?

At a meeting, why does a topic come up? Why do we speak up and why are the officers up for election and why is it up to the secretary to write up a report?

We call up our friends and we use it to brighten up a room, polish up the silver, and we warm up the leftovers and clean up the kitchen. We lock up the house and some guys fix up the old car.

At other times the little word has real special meaning. People stir up trouble, line up for tickets, work up an appetite, and think up excuses.

To be dressed is one thing but to be dressed up is extra special. Another use of up is confusing as a drain must be opened up because it is stopped up.

We open up a store in the morning but we close it up at night. Do you have the impression that we seem to be pretty mixed up about up?

To be knowledgeable of the proper uses of up, look up the word in the dictionary. In a desk size dictionary, the word up, takes up almost 1/4th the page and definitions add up to about thirty.

If you are up to it, you might try building up a list of the many ways up is used. It will take up a lot of your time, but if you don't give up, you may wind up with a hundred or more.

When it threatens to rain, we say it is clouding up. When the sun comes out we say it is clearing up. When it rains, it wets up the earth. When it doesn't rain for awhile, things dry up; as a result, they can even heat up. According to some British speakers and writers, things can even "hot up".

We could go on and on, but I'll wrap it up, because now my time is up; so, I'll shut up.

—An example of "hot up" was seen at the UK website blog, Digital Home,
in an article titled, "Browser wars hot up with Safari for Windows" by Dean Evans,
dated Monday, June 11, 2007.

Books and bookends

Related poly- words.

Another related unit is available at semeio-, sema-.