logo ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Polysemy and Homonymy

pickwick Mr. Stiggins, with several most indubitable symptoms of having quite as much pine-apple rum-and-water about him as he could comfortably accommodate, took his hat, and his leave.
Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, Chapter XXVII

He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men.
Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit.
Star Trek: The Next Generation

The farmers in the valley grew potatoes, peanuts, and bored
Kevin Flynn

Yet time and her aunt moved slowly – and her patience and her ideas were nearly worn out before the tête-à-tête was over.
Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice

All the citations above are examples of a literary device called zeugma (/ˈzjuːɡ.mə/).  Their effect lies in the fact that a single verb or adjective is applied to two objects, one of which is appropriate, the other not.

There are six verbs above which operate like this in these examples (take, carry, execute, grow, move and wear out) and they all exhibit polysemy: they have more than one meaning in English.  If it weren't for polysemy, zeugma creation would not be possible.
By some estimates, 40% of all words in English are polysemous with more, sometimes many more, than one meaning.
What is important here, as we shall see, is that the various meanings of polysemous words are connected in some way (if obscurely) and in this polysemy differs from homonymy.  Homonymy also refers to words having more than one meaning but in this case the meanings are wholly unconnected.

Zeugma is sometimes referred to as syllepsis but on this site the latter term is reserved for concord problems in which one element can only agree with some of another element in a sentence as in, for example:
    John and Mary will each bring his / her / their favourite dessert
in which it is unclear which possessive determiner should be applied.


4

Homonymy, Polysemy, Monosemy and Word family

Homonymy
refers to words which look and sound the same but are unrelated and have different, unrelated meanings.  They are usually distinguished from homographs (words which look the same but are differently pronounced, e.g., lead [the metal] and lead [the verb]) and homophones (words which look different but are pronounced the same, e.g., rights, rites, writes, no, know etc.).  Homonyms are usually derived differently, i.e., they have different etymologies, but that is not always the case.
Other examples are:
bank (a commercial enterprise concerned with money) and bank (the side of a river)
May (the fifth month of the year) and may (a modal auxiliary verb)
peep (make a bird-like noise) and peep (look cautiously)
air (atmosphere) and air (a tune)
rose (the past form of rise) and rose (a flower)
mean (signify) and mean (unpleasant) and mean (primitive) and mean (average)
Polysemy
refers to the fact that a word or phrase can have a variety of related meanings.  For example,
    He was booked into the hotel
vs.
    He was booked by the referee
.
Both these meanings of book imply some kind of registration (in a book of some kind) so they are clearly related but have different definitions.  A phrase such as on the rocks exhibits the same phenomenon, referring to a drink with ice cubes or to a shipwreck.
Polysemes are often formed by conversion in which the form of a word remains unchanged but its word class alters.
Other examples are:
pen (a writing implement) and pen (the action of writing)
dish (a kind of plate) and dish (a meal)
frame (a surrounding for a picture) and frame (falsely incriminate)
cap (the top of a pen or bottle) and cap (a type of headgear)
drive (control a vehicle) and drive (a short private roadway)
satellite (an orbiting space craft) and satellite (a country or state dependent on a more powerful one)
Polysemy is pronounced /pɒ.ˈlɪ.siː.mɪ/, incidentally, and the adjective is polysemous, pronounced /pɒ.ˈlɪ.siː.məs/.
Monosemy
refers to a word having only one possible meaning in a language and which cannot lead to ambiguity.  For example, the word orrery has no meaning in English other than a clockwork model of the solar system (Riemer, 2010:161).
Word family
refers to a single word (or lemma) which takes different grammatical forms while retaining its core meaning.
Examples are:
nation, nations, national, nationalise etc.
smoke, smoked, smoking, smokes, smoker, smoky etc.
(An alternative definition of word families is one used by teachers of children and refers to words which contain similar constituents so, for example:
nest, best, lest, chest, crest
etc.
would qualify as a word family.  That is not a useful definition of the term for our purposes.)

Homonymy and polysemy occur in all natural languages.  Artificial languages avoid both on the principle that, in an ideal world, any word should have a single unambiguous meaning.  You may have noticed that the world is not ideal.

And here's the snag:

the problem of distinguishing between homonymy and polysemy is, in principle, insoluble.
Lyons, cited in Laufer, in Schmitt and McCarthy (1997:152)

This is why we are dealing with homonymy and polysemy in the same guide.


develop

Semantic development

Over time, in all languages, words change their meanings.  Sometimes a word's meaning is extended to other meanings and sometimes it is altered completely.
In the first case, we arrive at a word which is polysemous: the primary meaning is retained but other related meanings are grafted on to the word.
In the second case, we have what is called polysemy splitting in which the word may retain its primary meaning but a secondary meaning is now so different that we are justified in calling the resulting word a homonym, having the same form as another word but a wholly different meaning.

There are two processes at work:

  1. Radiation
    In this process, a word retains its primary meaning but other meanings are developed from it by analogy or metaphor.
    Our example is the word head.
    The primary meaning of the word is the uppermost or foremost part of an animal's body and that meaning is retained in the language, of course.  However, radiating from the primary meaning are all sorts of other meanings, all of which are related to the primary meaning, like this:
    head
    With a little effort, the derived, radiating meanings can be inferred from the primary meaning even when word class changes by conversion from the noun to a verb.
    When radiation occurs, the meanings (in the outer circle) derived from the primary one (in the centre) are not related to each other but retain a relationship only to the central word.
  2. Concatenation
    In this process, there is a chain of meanings, each related to the one before it but developing until the original meaning and the derived meanings are so different that they qualify as homonyms rather than related meanings of the same word.
    Our example is stew.
    The oldest meaning referred to a hot room or steam bath, from which the idea of slowly cooking developed and from there, the idea of a meal so cooked of a mix of vegetables and / or meat is a natural step.  Metaphorically, the verb can be used to mean leave people without help to face the consequences of their actions, like this:
    stew
    We cannot infer the meaning of
        Don't bother to help.  Let him stew.
    without making a real leap of imagination and the meaning of
        a nice, warming vegetable stew
    is not derivable from a hot room without a good deal of inspired guesswork, if it is derivable at all.
    The polysemes have split into two or more derivationally related terms which are no longer semantically related so they are homonyms.
    The primary meaning of hot room is now lost to Modern English but in some cases of concatenation, may be retained.
    A modern example is the word mouse which originally, of course, applied to a small furry rodent but whose meaning has now been extended to refer to the computer peripheral because of a presumed similarity of appearance.
    Concatenation often works in two ways:
    1. narrowing: a word may have its meaning narrowed so, for example, the word book originally meant any piece of written material inscribed on any material but the meaning was narrowed to only a certain type of bound paper pages.
    2. broadening: a word may have its meaning extended so, for example, the word bird was originally used only to apply to young birds but has now been broadened to include all avians.

It is often possible, with a good etymological dictionary, to trace a word's meaning back to its primary source.  However, as we explain below, etymology is not a good guide to meaning.


problem

So what's the problem?

Primarily it is Lyons' problem, cited above, that it is in principle impossible to distinguish between homonymy and polysemy.
A good example is the word horn.  The word derives from Proto-Indo-European and there are cognate words in other Germanic languages (the word is the same in German, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Old Frisian and almost the same in Modern Frisian, Dutch and the extinct Gothic).
The musical instrument was originally made from the horns of animals and the modern meaning is derived from that.  Arguably, therefore, the word meaning the outgrowth on the heads of some animals and a musical instrument usually made of brass is an example of monosemy but many would happily suggest that the meanings have diverged to the extent that they are now homonyms and not even polysemes.  Almost everyone would consider that the uses of the word to mean telephone or the way vehicles have of warning others are so far removed from the original meaning as to constitute separate lexemes.  Most dictionaries will see them that way.

Here are some more examples.  Would you classify the following examples in black as a word:

  1. having only one meaning (monosemy)
  2. having two different but related meanings (polysemy)
  3. having two completely unrelated meanings (homonymy)
1 I keep the car in the garage vs. I keep a dog and two cats
2 I kept the change vs. I kept him waiting
3 My only grandmother is my father's mother vs. My only grandmother is my mother's mother
4 The car took off down the street vs. The plane took off on time
5 I've smoked too many fags today vs. This work is a real fag
6 The chalk quarry is now disused vs. They chased their quarry for miles
7 I got the bus to work vs. I got $10 for the work
8 His grave is in the churchyard vs. That was a grave mistake
9 I took a short holiday vs. I took a shower
10 The fruit punch was delicious vs. The punch was vicious
11 That's a vital difference vs. He has no vital signs
12 Why was he tired? vs. Why did he leave?
13 How did she seem? vs. How did you find out?
14 It's a current affairs programme vs. The current runs quickly under the bridge
15 She has fair hair vs. The referee wasn't fair
16 Will he fence in the Olympics next year? vs. I fenced in the garden
17 I read while he watched television vs. While this is interesting, it doesn't help much

Click here for some notes when you have made your decisions.

Occasionally, a lexeme will betray whether it is polysemous of homonymous in its grammar, word class and colligational characteristics.
For example, in
    The tree has blown down
    The concept is not yet full blown
    He received a nasty blow on the head

are all, on the face of things, varieties of the word blow but the words merely look similar and it's easy to see that
    blow is a verb (and irregular) concerned with moving air.  It is cognate with the German word blähen.
    blown is an adjective related to being in full bloom (as of a flower),  The verb bloom from which it originates is cognate with the German verb blühen.
    blow is a noun meaning a strike and may be cognate with the Middle Dutch blouwen, beat, but its origin is obscure.

roots

The appeal to etymology and word origins

The etymological fallacy

In this section we have occasionally and with some reluctance appealed to words' etymologies to decide if they are examples of homonymy or polysemy.
This is an area beloved of the language pedant, almost always the ignorant language pedant, who sees a word's historical meaning as somehow its 'real' meaning.  A word's real meaning is the way in which it is used now by native speakers of the language.  It may be the case, for example, that the word toilet, originally spelled toylet, meant when it was imported from French, a cloth that tailors used to bundle up other pieces of cloth.  It then moved its meaning by the process of concatenation we explained above, to a cloth spread on a dressing table and over the centuries has shifted its meaning again to the a porcelain bowl with a flush or the room in which you will find one.
Those who insist that a word's original meaning is a guide to how it should be used need to tell us at which point in history we should freeze a word's meaning to stop the decline of the language (something, incidentally, which is not happening).

Another good example is the word egregious, an adjective imported in the 1530s.  It comes from a Latin phrase ex grege which means separated from or rising above the flock and originally meant distinguished or excellent.
However, by the late 16th century the word came to mean its opposite in the modern sense of notably bad, even evil.
This was, it has been speculated, because the word was used ironically so frequently that people came to believe it meant the opposite of what was intended.  It is a neat example of how language changes over time (and not much time in this case) and of how etymology is not a good guide to meaning.

The etymology of words is, indeed, an interesting (for some) window into the past and also tells the serious linguist something about how language changes under cultural pressures.  That a word's etymology is a guide to its current meaning or how it should be used is arrant nonsense.
That is the etymological fallacy.


group of three

Syntactical homonymy

There is a full guide on this site to this area, linked below, so only a few examples of this phenomenon will be given here to get the flavour.
The expression refers to the fact that many function words can perform different, but often semantically related, grammatical functions.
The same considerations concerning whether the use of a function word in a different word class or with a different meaning is homonymy or polysemy apply here, too.
Here are some examples:

  1. since
    This troublesome word has a number of related meanings (and some distinctly different ones) so may be used as an example of both polysemy and homonymy but syntactically rather than semantically based.
    1. It functions as a temporal preposition and refers to the following time span up until another event intervenes or until the present.  For example:
          She has worked here since October
          They had been in their jobs since the beginning of the year but left in October
          They have waited since the first meeting for an answer
    2. The word is also a good example of syntactical homonymy because it can also function as:
      1. an adverb
            I saw her when she came to visit her mother, but not since
            He started on a low salary but has since been promoted and now earns well
      2. a temporal subordinating conjunction:
            He had lived there since he came to London but moved when he retired
            I have been at university since I was 18
      3. a causal resultative subordinating conjunction
            I had a drink in the bar, since I had an hour to kill before my train
            Since it was Sunday, I stayed in bed till noon
  2. yet
    Take these two examples:
        He is tired and getting old.  Yet he works a six-day week.
        I was tired yet happy with my efforts

    In the first case, yet is an adverbial acting as a conjunct referring anaphorically to the first sentence.  It could be replaced with a more familiar conjunct performing the same function, such as however.
    In the second case, it is a conjunction meaning something like but.
    Whether you consider that the two meanings are close enough to be an example of polysemy is moot but, because the word occupies two separate word classes, this is better described as an example of syntactical homonymy.
  3. for
    Is a good example of syntactical homonymy but also of plain polysemy.
    1. In the first case, we can see that it can be both a preposition and a conjunction.  As as a preposition in, e.g.:
          I did the work for the money
      and as a coordinating conjunction (albeit slightly old-fashioned and formal) in, e.g.:
          I said nothing for I knew they wouldn't listen to me
    2. In terms of polysemy, the preposition for has at least 14 different but variously related meanings.  The full list of 14 is available here (new tab).
      Again, how closely you feel the meanings are related will determine whether you teach the area as an example of polysemy or separate the meanings and teach it as homonymy.  The meanings include these five :
      • Intended to be given:
            There's a letter for you
      • Having the purpose:
            The house is not for sale
      • Amount of time or distance:
            He spoke for hours
            We drove for miles
      • On the occasion of:
            I bought it him for his birthday
      • In support of:
            I won't vote for the President again

For more, as well as a consideration of gradience, a related concept, see the guide.


motivation

Metaphor: obscure and transparent meaning

Obscure and transparent meanings are relative terms not absolute categories.  For example:

There is an argument that alternative meanings of a word which are easily and obviously just a metaphorical extension of the base meaning do not constitute examples of polysemy.
Prepositions are good examples of simple metaphorical extensions of meaning which are not too difficult to work out providing one knows the usual, locative meaning of the preposition.  Examples are:
    to agree among ourselves
    to have people working under you
    to meet at six
    to be in danger
    to be beyond help
and so on.  All these prepositional uses are metaphorical extensions of the locative (place) meaning of the preposition, and therefore examples of polysemy, but the meaning is usually transparent.
It is often observed that prepositions of time closely parallel prepositions of place so, for example:
    We met in the summer
and
    We met in the theatre
both refer to longer times and larger places than:
    We met at six o'clock
and
    We met at the ticket office
(However, the system is by no means consistent because words such as:
    since, during, till
are only used (as prepositions) for time, and
    beneath, behind, out of
are reserved (as prepositions) for spatial relations.)

cat

compositionality

let the cat out of the bag  

The term compositionality is usually attributed to Gottlieb Frege who asserted that the meaning of a phrase or clause may be inferred from its constituents so, for example, we can disambiguate the homonym word bear in these phrases:
    the fat bear
    bear a hand

by looking for the connections between phrase, word class and word meaning.

It is, however, not always so easy when fixed phrases are concerned and it is clear that the expression let the cat out of the bag cannot be unpacked by knowing the meaning of all the words which make up the idiom.

Polysemous words in compounds present some difficulties.  For example, in:
    doorman
the use of door is not to mean an object but an entrance to something (and may not be a door at all).
In:
    hot potato
we may not be referring to a potato at all but to a situation which needs careful handling.

Affixes may also be polysemous so, for example, in:
    The situation is hopeless
the suffix, -less, clearly means without but in:
    She's a hopeless golfer
the suffix does not carry the meaning of without and the word means something like very poor.
In:
    unfortunate
the prefix, un-, means not but in:
    untie
the prefix implies reversing an action.


classroom

Teaching in this area

learner difficulties

  1. Homonymy is common to all languages but, of course, is also different in all languages.  For example, in English, the word bank may refer to a place to keep money or the side of a river or take the meaning of the verb rely.  Similarly, in German, arm may mean poor or an upper limb, in French, pic may mean peak or woodpecker and louer means both hire and praise although the words are unrelated, having different origins (Riemer, 2010:162).
    There are no predictable cross-language patterns so we have to be alert to the fact that, e.g., since will only be recognised as a time preposition (since last weekend) and not as a subordinating conjunction (He paid since he had the money).
  2. Polysemy is likewise not a predictable pattern.  The word head in English may mean boss, lead, foam on beer, tip, top etc. but each of these meanings (all of which are related and so polysemous) would require a different word altogether in most languages.  In German, the word Leiter is polysemous and has the meaning of leader but also, by metaphorical extension, ladder.  Translation is perilous.
  3. Verbs present particular difficulties:
    1. Those sometimes described as delexicalised, such as make, do, pay, get etc., are unpredictable because patterns of meaning and their concepts will not translate, with the meaning often reliant on the noun with which they collocate.  Most such verbs are polysemous insofar as they take their meaning from the noun with which they appear.
          They made friends
      and
          They made the beds
      are clearly different but related meanings of the verb make and, for teaching purposes, it is often wise to treat them as homonyms rather than polysemes.
      A wiser approach is not to treat them separately at all but to teach the lexical chunk in which they appear.
    2. A verb like paint, in the sense of apply liquid colour to a surface, is, on the face of it, uncomplicated and monosemous.  However, there is clearly a cline from the uncomplicated sense to the polysemous uses in the distinction between
          paint the house
          paint a picture of the house
      and the metaphorical extension of, e.g.:
          he painted a depressing picture of the future of the country.
      Armed only with the base meaning, a learner may be excused for being confused by the existence of the polysemes.
    3. Transitivity also presents difficulties and verbs may alter in meaning depending on whether they are used with or without an object.
      For example:
          She left at 6
          She left him her house
          They managed without much money
          They managed the compan
      y
      In addition, when used transitively or intransitively, the nature of the subject will often alter, for example:
          I broke the glass
          The glass broke
          She ended the activity
          The activity ended

      and so on.
    4. Even verbs which are used transitively may alter meaning in quite subtle ways.  For example:
          The police dusted the window for fingerprints
      i.e., added dust
          He dusted the room
      i.e., removed dust
      Additionally,
          She smoked a cigarette
      and
          She smoked the cheese
      are clearly different but related meanings of the verb smoke.
      And
          He ate dinner
          The acid ate the metal
      are different but connected meanings of the verb eat.
    5. The verb mean itself is notorious in this respect.  Jackendoff (2012:33 et seq.) identifies that the verb is used at least seven different ways:
      1. can be translated as:
            Fisch in German means fish in English
      2. is defined as:
            Smog means fog and smoke combined
      3. is explained as:
            The flashing light means the hard drive is working
      4. is causally linked to:
            Catching that train means getting up very early
      5. intend:
            I mean to finish this today
      6. impact:
            The fall in the value of the pound means that imports will be more expensive
      7. emotional impact:
            Your help meant a great deal to us
  4. Connotation (i.e., the emotional meaning we attach to words) is also unpredictable.  For example, pig may have an alternative meaning in English of glutton but that is more to do with cultural and historical issues than with the polysemous nature of the word.

presenting the data to our learners

Whether we consider that words have a single meaning, two (or more) related meanings or two (or more) wholly unrelated meanings matters.  Many very common words in English are polysemous and to deny our learners the data they need to be able to deploy the words accurately would seem perverse.
Consider the word play as an example in these sentences:

  1. Arsenal are playing tonight.
  2. I'm playing football tomorrow.
  3. I'm playing John in the final.
  4. Who plays the hero?
  5. She plays the piano beautifully.
  6. Which orchestra is playing?
  7. He's playing you for a fool.
  8. Which play are you going to see?

If you have doubts about the polysemous nature of the word, try the so-called 'and / and-so' test, constructing sentences such as
    I am playing darts and John
    Moscow Dynamo are playing tonight and so is the Royal Philharmonic
    He played chess and the violin
    He played a trick on me and a waiter on stage
If you create a zeugma, that's evidence of polysemy.

How would you present this data to learners?  Think for a moment and then click here eye to reveal an idea.

 

Learners, given the example sentences (i.e., the data) can be encouraged to work out the polysemes for themselves and produce a chart like this if they find it helpful.  This is a fairly simple example but you can do this at many levels with many lexemes.  Try it with, e.g., office or reserve etc. to see what's meant.
You may end up with diagrams such as:

If you are feeling strong, you can try this with extremely polysemous words in English such as get, set, make, do, but you would be well advised to break the area down into sense units.

context and co-text

The fact that polysemy is so common, underlines the need to make sure our learners have the data they need to understand lexis.
For example, one could present the meaning of wake up as:

wake = to stop sleeping: she woke up at 8 o'clock feeling good

That would effectively provide your learners with the base meaning but provide none of the sense of any polysemes.  Alternatively, you could use the idea above but extend it with:

goal = to become more active: their first goal made us wake up and play better
wake up = become aware of problems: The President told the people it was time to wake up to the danger

This doesn't have to be done graphically, of course.  It is often just as effective to present alternative meanings (dealing with homonymy or polysemy) in words.
For example:

Task: Match the meaning of set to the example by drawing a line to connect them.

to fix at a place or time (transitive verb)       Are we all set?  Can we go now?
to go down (intransitive verb) he has a full set of Dickens' novels
to put (transitive verb) set the clock for 6: we have to leave early
to become solid (intransitive verb) there's only a set number of hours we can work without a break
a collection (count noun) set it on the table by the door
ready (as an ungradable adjective) the sun set slowly into the sea
fixed (as an ungradable adjective) the glue has set now so it's safe to move it

Focusing learners on word class is helpful.
Arguably, by the way, only the notion of set as a collection and set meaning go down are true homonyms of set.  The others are polysemes.  Some would even see the sense of a collection as derivable from the idea of a fixed number (so polysemy) but it is unlikely that most learners would draw that out for themselves.  Whether most learners would make the connection between:
    a set number
    the glue has set
and
    set an alarm clock
which are all linked to a meaning of fix, without help is also open to question but they can be led there.
Noticing metaphorical extensions of meaning or similarities of meaning is an important skill to foster.
Unless we understand the nature of homonymy and polysemy, of course, we can't do that.



Related guides
semantics for more on the meaning of meaning
syntactical homonymy and gradience for the guide to how function words may slip between word classes and also represent different communicative functions within word classes
synonymy for a guide to synonymy and five other related ideas: metonymy, synecdoche, simile, metaphor, hyponymy
ambiguity for a guide which considers polysemy as a source of ambiguity (and quite a lot more)
context for more on what it affects and sources of context for teaching


References:
Jackendoff, R, 2012, A User's Guide to Thought and Meaning, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Riemer, N, 2010, Introducing Semantics, New York: Cambridge University Press
Schmitt, N and McCarthy, M, 1997, Vocabulary - Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press