AskDefine | Define polysemy

Dictionary Definition

polysemy n : the ambiguity of an individual word or phrase that can be used (in different contexts) to express two or more different meanings [syn: lexical ambiguity] [ant: monosemy]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. the concept that words, signs and symbols may have multiple meanings
    [...] polysemy, which is the greedy habit habit some words have of taking more than one meaning for themselves. Erin McKean, speech at TED.



Extensive Definition

Polysemy ([pəˈlɪsəmɪ] or [ˈpɒlɪˌsɛmɪ]) (from the Greek πολυσημεία = "multiple meaning") is the capacity for a sign (e.g. a word, phrase, etc.) or signs to have multiple meanings (sememes, i.e. a large semantic field). This is a pivotal concept within social sciences, such as media studies and linguistics.A polyseme is a word or phrase with multiple, related meanings. A word is judged to be polysemous if it has two senses of the word whose meanings are related. Since the vague concept of relatedness is the test for polysemy, judgments of polysemy can be very difficult to make. Because applying pre-existing words to new situations is a natural process of language change, looking at words' etymology is helpful in determining polysemy but not the only solution; as words become lost in etymology, what once was a useful distinction of meaning may no longer be so. Some apparently unrelated words share a common historical origin, however, so etymology is not an infallible test for polysemy, and dictionary writers also often defer to speakers' intuitions to judge polysemy in cases where it contradicts etymology. English has many words which are polysemous. For example the verb "to get" can mean "take" (I'll get the drinks), "become" (she got scared), "have" (I've got three dollars), "understand" (I get it) etc.
There are several tests for polysemy, but one of them is zeugma: if one word seems to exhibit zeugma when applied in different contexts, it is likely that the contexts bring out different polysemes of the same word. If the two senses of the same word do not seem to fit, yet seem related, then it is likely that they are polysemous. The fact that this test again depends on speakers' judgments about relatedness, however, means that this test for polysemy is not infallible, but is rather merely a helpful conceptual aid.
The difference between homonyms and polysemes is subtle. Lexicographers define polysemes within a single dictionary lemma, numbering different meanings, while homonyms are treated in separate lemmata. Semantic shift can separate a polysemous word into separate homonyms. For example, check as in "bank check" (or Cheque) , check in chess, and check meaning "verification" are considered homonyms, while they originated as a single word derived from chess in the 14th century.
For Dick Hebdige polysemy means that, "each text is seen to generate a potentially infinite range of meanings," making, according to Richard Middleton, "any homology, out of the most heterogeneous materials, possible. The idea of signifying practice — texts not as communicating or expressing a pre-existing meaning but as 'positioning subjects' within a process of semiosis — changes the whole basis of creating social meaning".


  • Mole
  1. a small burrowing mammal
  2. consequently, there are several different entities called moles (see the Mole disambiguation page). Although these refer to different things, their names derive from 1. :e.g. A Mole burrows for information hoping to go undetected.
  • Bank
  1. a financial institution
  2. the building where a financial institution offers services
  3. a synonym for 'rely upon' (e.g. "I'm your friend, you can bank on me"). It is different, but related, as it derives from the theme of security initiated by 1
However: a river bank is a homonym to 1 and 2, as they do not share etymologies. It is a completely different meaning. River bed, though, is polysemous with the beds on which people sleep.
  1. a bound collection of pages
  2. a text reproduced and distributed (thus, someone who has read the same text on a computer has read the same book as someone who had the actual paper volume)
  • Milk
    • The verb milk (e.g. "he's milking it for all he can get") derives from the process of obtaining milk.
  • Wood
  1. a piece of a tree
  2. a geographical area with many trees


Further reading

  • O'Sullivan, et al. (1994) Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-06173-3
polysemy in Bulgarian: Полисемия
polysemy in Danish: Polysemi
polysemy in German: Polysemie
polysemy in Modern Greek (1453-): Πολυσημία
polysemy in Spanish: Polisemia
polysemy in Basque: Polisemia
polysemy in French: Polysémie
polysemy in Galician: Polisemia
polysemy in Italian: Polisemia
polysemy in Dutch: Polysemie
polysemy in Japanese: 多義語
polysemy in Norwegian Nynorsk: Polysemi
polysemy in Polish: Polisemia
polysemy in Russian: Полисемия
polysemy in Finnish: Polysemia
polysemy in Turkish: Çokanlamlılık
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