• polysemy •
Pronunciation: pah-li-sê-mee • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass
Meaning: The state of having multiple dictionary meanings, said of words like dope (moron, drugs), bank (river, financial institution), and so on.
Notes: Unlike the meaning of ambiguous, the multiple meanings of a word characterized by polysemy are all clear—well, as clear as meanings ever are. Yesterday's Good Word contained a variant of the word skate, which means (1) a kind of fish, (2) an extension on the bottom of a shoe that glides, (3) a mean, contemptible person. It is a perfect example of a polysemous word. Which reminds me, we have our choice of adjectives: polysemantic or polysemous.
In Play: Tired of asking, "What part of 'no' don't you understand?" Here is a variant that will send your coconversationalist off to the dictionary: "Larry, 'no' is not a polysemous word!" Remember, the meanings of polysemous words are not fuzzy or unclear: "I don't think Boswell is being ambiguous; I think he intentionally selects polysemous words to misdirect us."
Word History: The prefix poly- was borrowed from Greek polus "many". The Greek word goes back to Proto-Indo-European pol-/pel-"full, to fill" from which these two English words (fill and full) are also derived. The Greek word is also very close to Russian polnyi "full". In Latin the stem underwent methathesis (the [l] and the vowel switched places), giving us plenus "full". We see this root in the English borrowed words plenty and replenish, not to mention plein "full" in French, the language from which we borrowed them. (Today's Good Word was suggested by Brian Gockley, the mellifluous voice of the popular Good Word podcasts, who reads the polysemous words as well as the monosemous ones
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Does English have more polysemous words than other languages? I know Hebrew has many homonyms, but I can't think of too many polysemous words just offhand.
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