1. Education
Send to a Friend via Email




The association of one word with two or more distinct meanings. A polyseme is a word or phrase with multiple meanings. Adjective: polysemous or polysemic.

In contrast, a one-to-one match between a word and a meaning is called monosemy. According to William Croft, "Monosemy is probably most clearly found in specialized vocabulary dealing with technical topics" (The Handbook of Linguistics, 2003).

The fact that so many words (or lexemes) are polysemous "shows that semantic changes often add meanings to the language without subtracting any" (M. Lynne Murphy, Lexical Meaning, 2010).

For a discussion of the similarities and differences between polysemy and homonymy, see the entry for homonymy.

See also:


From the Greek, "many signs"

Examples and Observations:

  • "The word good has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man."
    (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1909)

  • "Have You Met Life Today?"
    (advertising slogan of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, 2001)

  • Sports Illustrated can be bought for 1 dollar or 35 million dollars; the first is something you can read and later start a fire with, the second is a particular company that produces the magazine you just read. Such polysemy can give rise to a special ambiguity (He left the bank five minutes ago, He left the bank five years ago). Sometimes dictionaries use history to decide whether a particular entry is a case of one word with two related meanings, or two separate words, but this can be tricky. Even though pupil (eye) and pupil (student) are historically linked, they are intuitively as unrelated as bat (implement) and bat (animal)."
    (Adrian Akmajian, et al., Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication. MIT Press, 2001)

  • Polysemy in Advertising
    "Common polysemic puns involve words like bright, naturally, clearly, where the advertiser will want both meanings. This headline ran above a picture of a sheep:
    Take it from the manufacturer.
    Wool. It's worth more. Naturally.
    (American Wool Council, 1980)
    Here the pun is a way of attributing wool, not to a manufacturing industry, but to nature."
    (Greg Myers, Words in Ads. Routledge, 1994)

  • Polysemy as a Graded Phenomenon
    "We adopt as a working hypothesis the view that almost every word is more or less polysemous, with senses linked to a prototype by a set of relational semantic principles which incorporate a greater or lesser amount of flexibility. We follow the now common practice in polysemy research and regard polysemy as a graded phenomenon . . ., where contrastive polysemy deals with homonyms such as match (a small stick with a tip which ignites when scraped on a rough surface) and match (contest in a game or sport), whereas complementary polysemy deals with interrelated semantic aspects of a word, such as, in the case of record, for example, the physical object and the music."
    (Brigitte Nerlich and David D. Clarke, "Polysemy and Flexibility." Polysemy: Flexible Patterns of Meaning in Mind and Language. Walter de Gruyter, 2003)

  • The Lighter Side of Polysemy
    "Leave it to Americans to think that no means yes, pissed means angry, and curse word means something other than a word that's cursed!"
    (Excalibur employee in "It Hits the Fan." South Park, 2001)
Pronunciation: POLE-eh-see-me, poe-li-SEE-me
  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Grammar & Composition
  4. Grammar & Rhetoric Glossary
  5. Paired Construction - Quotative
  6. polysemy - definition and examples of polysemy

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.