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Polysemy ([pəˈlɪsəmi] or [ˈpɒliˌsiːmi]) (from the Greek: πολυ-, poly-, “many” and σῆμα, sêma, “sign”) is the capacity for a sign (e.g. a word, phrase, etc.) or signs to have multiple meanings (sememes), i.e. a large semantic field. This is a pivotal concept within social sciences, such as media studies and linguistics.
A polyseme is a word or phrase with multiple, related meanings. A word is judged to be polysemous if it has two senses of the word whose meanings are related. Since the vague concept of relatedness is the test for polysemy, judgments of polysemy can be very difficult to make. Because applying pre-existing words to new situations is a natural process of language change, looking at words’ etymology is helpful in determining polysemy but not the only solution; as words become lost in etymology, what once was a useful distinction of meaning may no longer be so. Some apparently unrelated words share a common historical origin, however, so etymology is not an infallible test for polysemy, and dictionary writers also often defer to speakers’ intuitions to judge polysemy in cases where it contradicts etymology. English has many words which are polysemous. For example the verb “to get” can mean “take” (I’ll get the drinks), “become” (she got scared), “have” (I’ve got three dollars), “understand” (I get it) etc.
A closely related term is metonym, in which a word with one original meaning is used to refer to something else connected to it.
There are several tests for polysemy, but one of them is zeugma: if one word seems to exhibit zeugma when applied in different contexts, it is likely that the contexts bring out different polysemes of the same word. If the two senses of the same word do not seem to fit, yet seem related, then it is likely that they are polysemous. The fact that this test again depends on speakers’ judgments about relatedness, however, means that this test for polysemy is not infallible, but is rather merely a helpful conceptual aid.
The difference between homonyms and polysemes is subtle. Lexicographers define polysemes within a single dictionary lemma, numbering different meanings, while homonyms are treated in separate lemmata. Semantic shift can separate a polysemous word into separate homonyms. For example, check as in “bank check” (or Cheque) , check in chess, and check meaning “verification” are considered homonyms, while they originated as a single word derived from chess in the 14th century.
For Dick Hebdige polysemy means that, “each text is seen to generate a potentially infinite range of meanings,” making, according to Richard Middleton, “any homology, out of the most heterogeneous materials, possible. The idea of signifying practice — texts not as communicating or expressing a pre-existing meaning but as ‘positioning subjects’ within a process of semiosis — changes the whole basis of creating social meaning”.
One group of polysemes are those in which a word meaning an activity, perhaps derived from a verb, acquires the meanings of those engaged in the activity, or perhaps the results of the activity, or the time or place in which the activity occurs or has occurred. Sometimes only one of those meanings is intended, depending on context, and sometimes multiple meanings are intended at the same time. Other types are derivations from one of the other meanings that leads to a verb or activity.
- a small burrowing mammal
- consequently, there are several different entities called moles (see the Mole disambiguation page). Although these refer to different things, their names derive from 1. :e.g. A Mole burrows for information hoping to go undetected.
- a financial institution
- the building where a financial institution offers services
- a synonym for ‘rely upon’ (e.g. “I’m your friend, you can bank on me”). It is different, but related, as it derives from the theme of security initiated by 1
- However: a river bank is a homonym to 1 and 2, as they do not share etymologies. It is a completely different meaning. River bed, though, is polysemous with the beds on which people sleep.
- a bound collection of pages
- a text reproduced and distributed (thus, someone who has read the same text on a computer has read the same book as someone who had the actual paper volume)
- The verb milk (e.g. “he’s milking it for all he can get”) derives from the process of obtaining milk.
- a piece of a tree
- a geographical area with many trees
- a bird
- a type of construction equipment
 Related ideas
A lexical conception of polysemy was developed by B. T. S. Atkins, in the form of lexical implication rules. These are rules that describe how words, in one lexical context, can then be used, in a different form, in a related context. A crude example of such a rule is the pastoral idea of “verbizing one’s nouns”: that certain nouns, used in certain contexts, can be converted into a verb, conveying a related meaning.
Another clarification of polysemy is the idea of predicate transfer — the reassignment of a property to an object which would not otherwise inherently have that property. Thus, the expression “I am parked out back” conveys the meaning of “parked” from “car” to the property of “I possess a car”. This avoids incorrect polysemous interpretations of “parked”: that “people can be parked”, or that “I am pretending to be a car”, or that “I am something which can be parked”. This is supported by the morphology: “We are parked out back” does not mean that there are multiple cars; rather, that there are multiple passengers (having the property of being in possession of a car).
 See also
- ^ http://www.bartleby.com/61/0/P0430050.html
- ^ http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/polysemy?view=uk
- ^ Hebdige, D (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Metheun.
- ^ Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
- ^ Nicholas Ostler, B.T.S. Atkins “Predictable Meaning Shift: Some Linguistic Properties of Lexical Implication Rules” (1991) Proceedings of the First SIGLEX Workshop on Lexical Semantics and Knowledge Representation, Springer-Verlag.
- ^ G. Nunberg, “Transfers of Meaning”, Journal of Semantics, 1995 – Oxford Univ Press
 Further reading
- O’Sullivan, et al. (1994) Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-06173-3
- Jamet, Denis (Ed.) (2008) “Polysemy”, 1st issue of Lexis, E-Journal in English Lexicology: http://screcherche.univ-lyon3.fr/lexis/article.php?id_article=50