Polysemy is the capacity for a sign
Sign (semiotics)
A sign is understood as a discrete unit of meaning in semiotics. It is defined as "something that stands for something, to someone in some capacity" It includes words, images, gestures, scents, tastes, textures, sounds – essentially all of the ways in which information can be...

 (e.g., a word, phrase, etc.) or signs to have multiple meanings (sememe
A sememe is a semantic language unit of meaning, correlative to a morpheme.A sememe is a proposed unit of transmitted or intended meaning; it is atomic or indivisible. A sememe can be the meaning expressed by a morpheme, such as the English pluralizing morpheme -s, which carries the sememic...

s), i.e., a large semantic field
Semantic field
A semantic field is a technical term in the discipline of linguistics to describe a set of words grouped by meaning in a certain way. The term is also used in other academic disciplines, such as anthropology and computational semiotics.-Definition and usage:...


Charles Fillmore and Beryl Atkins’ definition stipulates three elements: (i) the various senses of a polysemous word have a central origin, (ii) the links between these senses form a network, and (iii) understanding the ‘inner’ one contributes to understanding of the ‘outer’ one.

Polysemy is a pivotal concept within disciplines such as media studies
Media studies
Media studies is an academic discipline and field of study that deals with the content, history and effects of various media; in particular, the 'mass media'. Media studies may draw on traditions from both the social sciences and the humanities, but mostly from its core disciplines of mass...

 and linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....



A polyseme is a word or phrase with different, but related senses. Since the test for polysemy is the vague concept of relatedness, judgments of polysemy can be difficult to make. Because applying pre-existing words to new situations is a natural process of language change, looking at words' etymology
Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time.For languages with a long written history, etymologists make use of texts in these languages and texts about the languages to gather knowledge about how words were used during...

 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 "procure" (I'll get the drinks), "become" (she got scared), "have" (I've got three dollars), "understand" (I get it) etc.

A closely related term is metonym
Metonymy is a figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept...

, in which a word with one original meaning is used to refer to something else connected to it.

There are several tests for polysemy, but one of them is zeugma
Zeugma is a figure of speech in which two or more parts of a sentence are joined with a single common verb or noun. A zeugma employs both ellipsis, the omission of words which are easily understood, and parallelism, the balance of several words or phrases...

: 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
Lexicography is divided into two related disciplines:*Practical lexicography is the art or craft of compiling, writing and editing dictionaries....

 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
A cheque is a document/instrument See the negotiable cow—itself a fictional story—for discussions of cheques written on unusual surfaces. that orders a payment of money from a bank account...

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
Chess is a two-player board game played on a chessboard, a square-checkered board with 64 squares arranged in an eight-by-eight grid. It is one of the world's most popular games, played by millions of people worldwide at home, in clubs, online, by correspondence, and in tournaments.Each player...

 in the 14th century. Psycholinguistic experiments have shown that homonyms and polysemes are represented differently within people's mental lexicon
In linguistics, the lexicon of a language is its vocabulary, including its words and expressions. A lexicon is also a synonym of the word thesaurus. More formally, it is a language's inventory of lexemes. Coined in English 1603, the word "lexicon" derives from the Greek "λεξικόν" , neut...

: while the different meanings of homonyms (which are semantically unrelated) tend to interfere or compete with each other during comprehension, this does not usually occur for the polysemes that have semantically related meanings

For Dick Hebdige
Dick Hebdige
Richard "Dick" Hebdige is an expatriate British media theorist and sociologist most commonly associated with the study of subcultures, and its resistance against the mainstream of society.-Life and career:...

 polysemy means that, "each text is seen to generate a potentially infinite range of meanings," making, according to Richard Middleton
Richard Middleton (musicologist)
Richard Middleton FBA is Emeritus Professor of Music at Newcastle University in Newcastle upon Tyne. He is also the founder and co-ordinating editor of the journal Popular Music.-Education:...

, "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
Semiosis is any form of activity, conduct, or process that involves signs, including the production of meaning. Briefly – semiosis is sign process...

 — changes the whole basis of creating social meaning".

One group of polysemes are those in which a word meaning an activity, perhaps derived from a verb, acquires the meanings of those engaged in the activity, or perhaps the results of the activity, or the time or place in which the activity occurs or has occurred. Sometimes only one of those meanings is intended, depending on context, and sometimes multiple meanings are intended at the same time. Other types are derivations from one of the other meanings that leads to a verb or activity.


  1. The human species (i.e., man vs. animal)
  2. Males of the human species (i.e., man vs. woman)
  3. Adult males of the human species (i.e., man vs. boy)

This example shows the specfic polysemy where the same word is used at different levels of a taxonomy
Taxonomy is the science of identifying and naming species, and arranging them into a classification. The field of taxonomy, sometimes referred to as "biological taxonomy", revolves around the description and use of taxonomic units, known as taxa...

. Example 1 contains 2, and 2 contains 3.

  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
    Mole (espionage)
    A mole is a spy who works for an enemy nation, but whose loyalty ostensibly lies with his own nation's government. In some usage, a mole differs from a defector in that a mole is a spy before gaining access to classified information, while a defector becomes a spy only after gaining access...

     burrows for information hoping to go undetected.

  1. a financial institution
    A bank is a financial institution that serves as a financial intermediary. The term "bank" may refer to one of several related types of entities:...

  2. the building where a financial institution offers services
  3. a synonym
    Synonyms are different words with almost identical or similar meanings. Words that are synonyms are said to be synonymous, and the state of being a synonym is called synonymy. The word comes from Ancient Greek syn and onoma . The words car and automobile are synonyms...

     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.

A book is a set or collection of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of hot lava, paper, parchment, or other materials, usually fastened together to hinge at one side. A single sheet within a book is called a leaf or leaflet, and each side of a leaf is called a page...

  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)
  3. to make an action or event a matter of record (e.g. "Unable to book a hotel room, a man sneaked into a nearby private residence where police arrested him and later booked him for unlawful entry.")

The verb milk (e.g. "he's milking it for all he can get") derives from the process of obtaining milk
Milk is a white liquid produced by the mammary glands of mammals. It is the primary source of nutrition for young mammals before they are able to digest other types of food. Early-lactation milk contains colostrum, which carries the mother's antibodies to the baby and can reduce the risk of many...


Present is a time that is neither past nor future.Present may also refer to:- Time and timing :* Present tense, the grammatical tense of a verb* Before Present, radiocarbon dates relative to AD 1950* Presenting, a medical term* Presenteeism...

  1. right now, the current moment
  2. a gift
  3. to show or display (e.g. "Michael was next to present")
  4. to be physically somewhere (e.g. "Stephen was present at the meeting")

  1. a piece of a tree
  2. a geographical area with many trees
  3. an erection

  1. a bird
  2. a type of construction equipment

Related ideas

A lexical conception of polysemy was developed by B. T. S. Atkins
B. T. S. Atkins
Beryl T. Atkins has been a professional lexicographer since 1966, first with Collins Publishers , where she was General Editor of the first 'modern' English-French dictionary, the Collins-Robert English-French Dictionary, then as Lexicographic Adviser to Oxford University Press, where she...

, in the form of lexical implication rules. These are rules that describe how words, in one lexical context, can then be used, in a different form, in a related context. A crude example of such a rule is the pastoral idea of "verbizing one's nouns": that certain nouns, used in certain contexts, can be converted into a verb, conveying a related meaning.

Another clarification of polysemy is the idea of predicate transfer
Predicate transfer
In linguistics, predicate transfer is the reassignment of a property to an object which would not otherwise inherently have that property. Thus, the expression "I am parked out back" conveys the meaning of "parked" from "car" to the property of "I possess a car"...

 — the reassignment of a property to an object which would not otherwise inherently have that property. Thus, the expression "I am parked out back" conveys the meaning of "parked" from "car" to the property of "I possess a car". This avoids incorrect polysemous interpretations of "parked": that "people can be parked", or that "I am pretending to be a car", or that "I am something which can be parked". This is supported by the morphology
Morphology (linguistics)
In linguistics, morphology is the identification, analysis and description, in a language, of the structure of morphemes and other linguistic units, such as words, affixes, parts of speech, intonation/stress, or implied context...

: "We are parked out back" does not mean that there are multiple cars; rather, that there are multiple passengers (having the property of being in possession of a car).

See also

  • Heterosemy
    Heterosemy is a concept in linguistics.Heterosemy is a special case of polysemy where the different but related meanings of a given morpheme are associated with distinct grammatical contexts. Examples where the meaning varies depending on the usage of the word as a noun or a verb include father,...

  • Homograph
    A homograph is a word or a group of words that share the same written form but have different meanings. When spoken, the meanings may be distinguished by different pronunciations, in which case the words are also heteronyms. Words with the same writing and pronunciation A homograph (from the ,...

  • Idiom
    Idiom is an expression, word, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is comprehended in regard to a common use of that expression that is separate from the literal meaning or definition of the words of which it is made...

  • Metonymy
    Metonymy is a figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept...

  • Multivalent
    Multivalent may refer to:*Multivalent , the property of having multiple valences*Polyvalent: something which has many values, meanings, or appeals*Multivalent , a Java-based web browser...

  • Polyvalent
    In chemistry, polyvalence or multivalence refers to species that are not restricted to a distinct number of valence bonds....

  • Polytely
    Polytely can be described as frequently, complex problem-solving situations characterized by the presence of not one, but several goals, endings.Modern societies face an increasing incidence of various complex problems...

  • Pun
    The pun, also called paronomasia, is a form of word play which suggests two or more meanings, by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect. These ambiguities can arise from the intentional use and abuse of homophonic,...

  • Semantic change
    Semantic change
    Semantic change, also known as semantic shift or semantic progression describes the evolution of word usage — usually to the point that the modern meaning is radically different from the original usage. In diachronic linguistics, semantic change is a change in one of the meanings of a word...

  • Troponymy
    Troponymy is the presence of a ‘manner’ relation between two lexemes.The notion was originally proposed by Christiane Fellbaum and George Miller. Some examples they gave are “to nibble is to eat in a certain manner, and to gorge is to eat in a different manner...

Further reading

  • Jamet, Denis (Ed.) (2008) "Polysemy", 1st issue of Lexis, E-Journal in English Lexicology.
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