Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Polysemy: Adding More Meanings

Chris Stewart of South Africa has been thinking long and deep about words this week and the result has been short e-mail essays that raise interesting issues that should be shared. Here is another comment from Chris:

Over the weekend I was in an idle moment pondering two unrelated yet somehow connected things. The first was how different words are adopted in different countries to denote the same thing (e.g. you would say hood and trunk to describe parts of your car, whereas I would call them the bonnet and boot). The second is how sometimes the shortest words have the widest variety of usages.”

The word tap sprang to mind as being a rich example, though I guess you would call it a faucet [up North but spigot down South–RB]. It is marvellous how English has adopted myriad words in order to be able on the one hand to precisely describe exquisite nuances, obfuscate, aggrandise or wax poetic, and on the other to be terse, concise and to the point. Plus, it is impressively economical in being able to reuse words to such an extent.”

The linguistic phenomenon is that the most commonly used words tend to change more slowly than infrequently used words. The most frequently used words tend to be short, like come, have, go, and all have several meanings as well as several irregular forms, e.g. go: go, goes, went, gone. Tap has a pretty straightforward set of forms but a wide range of meanings as a noun and a verb.

English once had a rich set of prefixes and suffixes which helped create new words out of old. Most of those have, for reasons we have yet to fathom, been lost. English is becoming more and more like Chinese, which has not prefixes or suffixes. This means that we simply add new senses to old words, senses that are only discernable in context.

The part of the computer that stores data is simply called memory since we no longer use the location suffix -ery (otherwise it would be a datary or informationery). The electronic connection between two web pages is called a link, even though it bears no resemblance to a chain. Highly complex systems of transistors are called chips because the originally were small.

You would think that we would reach a point of overload when we could barely understand each other because each word has so many meanings. But we seem to do OK because, when a problem emerges, we simply to go another language and copy a word from its lexicon. As I have said many times before in the histories of the Good Words, English is a swashbuckling pirate on the high seas of world languages, hauling in any word it needs, often “borrowing” the same word several times over the course of its development, giving each variant a distinct meaning. 

So maybe the accumulation of meanings on words without prefixes and suffixes to distinguish those meanings, forces us onto the bounding lexical main.

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