English Language


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Polysemy: the Many Meanings of a Word

The term polysemy refers to a word having multiple meanings, all connected in some way. An example of this is the word "wing", which can refer to a part of a bird used for flying or a new section of a building being constructed. Both uses of the word involve something sticking out from the main body.

Etymology of Polysemy

Polysemy is derived from the Greek words poly (many) and sēma (signs), and is the opposite of monosemy, where a word has only one meaning.

Examples of Polysemous Words

In linguistics, it can be challenging to distinguish the difference between denotative (literal) and connotative (figurative) meanings of a word. Here are some examples of polysemous words and their various interpretations:

  • The verb "serve" has multiple meanings, such as providing a service, serving food, or serving a purpose.
  • Other common examples of polysemous words include "head", "bright", and "run".


In Shakespeare's play, "The Winter's Tale", Paulina shows Leontes a statue of his late wife, Hermione. She refers to the gallery where the statue is displayed, which could be interpreted as a place to showcase art or as a crypt or catacomb. Paulina's comparison of the statue to a funeral monument suggests the latter meaning.

Tips for Understanding Polysemous Words

When trying to interpret the meaning of a polysemous word, consider the tone, setting, and context of the text. This will help you understand the author's intended meaning and avoid confusion.

Polysemy vs. Homonymy

Polysemy should not be confused with homonymy, where two words are written or spoken the same but have different meanings. Examples of homonyms include "lead" (verb) and "lead" (noun). However, some words can be both polysemous and homonyms, such as "date" (noun) and "date" (verb).

The Distinction between Polysemy and Hyponymy

Another concept to be aware of is hyponymy, which refers to a word being a specific type or member of a broader category. For instance, "mouse" can be a small mammal or a computer device, making it both polysemous and a hyponym.

Polysemy and hyponymy are crucial elements of language that contribute to its richness and complexity. Understanding their distinctions can enhance our understanding and appreciation of the words we use every day.

Understanding Lexical Ambiguity: Polysemy and Hyponymy

Language is a complex system with a wide range of meanings attached to words, which often leads to confusion in communication. A prime example of this is when someone asks, "Do you mean the animal mouse or the computer mouse?"

While lexical ambiguity refers to the multiple meanings associated with a single word, hyponymy focuses on the relationship between a broader term and its subordinate terms. To grasp this better, let's examine the various types of mice. There are two categories of mice: house mouse (subordinate 1) and field mouse (subordinate 2). Both fall under the broader term "mouse."

Even when the word "mouse" is used without specifying either the type, it still exclusively refers to the animal, leaving no room for lexical ambiguity with the other meaning of "mouse" (a computer device).

Polysemy versus Hyponymy: Understanding the Difference

From a polysemous point of view, both house mouse and field mouse are not distinct meanings of "mouse." Instead, they are both connected to the general concept of the animal.

On the other hand, hyponymy considers "mouse" as a single specific meaning, and the computer mouse is not a type of "mouse." In other words, the computer mouse falls under the connotative meaning of "mouse" within the concept of polysemy.

Based on these concepts, it can be concluded that:

"Bring me the mouse!"

Polysemy: Can lead to misunderstanding. Which "mouse" is being referred to, the animal or the computer device?

Hyponymy: Does not cause confusion. It unambiguously refers to the animal mouse and not the other meaning of "mouse", such as the computer device.

The Key Differences between Polysemy and Hyponymy


Polysemy refers to a single word with multiple, related meanings, all listed under one dictionary entry. The opposite is monosemy, which means that a word only has one meaning. All words that are not polysemous are monosemous.

Homonymy, on the other hand, refers to words that are spelled and/or pronounced the same but have unrelated meanings, such as "address" as a verb and "address" as a noun.

Examples of polysemous words include "get," which can mean receive, bring, or travel, and "bank," which can refer to a river, a place to deposit money, or a slope. These variants of meaning are all found under one dictionary entry.

Polysemy is distinctive from hyponymy in that it focuses solely on the multiple meanings of a single word, while hyponymy explores the relationships between superordinate and subordinate words.


Hyponymy describes the super- and subordinate relationships between words. For instance, "dog" is a superordinate word, and "poodle," "labrador," and "pomeranian" are all subordinates under this broader term. This means that "dog" contains the concept of all these types of dogs.

In conclusion, polysemy and hyponymy are two distinct concepts that provide valuable insights into the intricacies of language.

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