Podcast polysemy

Printable Version
Pronunciation: pê-li-sê-mee Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass

Meaning: The state of having multiple dictionary meanings, said of words like dope (moron, glue, 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. Blatherskite contains a variant of the word skate, which means (1) a kind of fish, (2) an extension of 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 co-conversationalist off to the dictionary: "Larry, there is no polysemy in the word no." 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 confuse 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 (full and fill) are also derived. The Greek word is also very close to Russian polnyi "full". In Latin the stem underwent metathesis (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, whose mellifluous voice we hear reading the polysemous words as well as the monosemous ones in the Good Word podcasts.)

Dr. Goodword,

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