I just discovered this one a short time ago while working on an article about language. Here’s the definition based on the Wikipedia entry:
Polysemy: the capacity for a sign, word, or phrase to have multiple related meanings. It is usually regarded as distinct from homonymy, in which the multiple meanings of a word may be unconnected or unrelated.
For example, a word like man would qualify as being polysemous because the meanings are related. Let’s look at them:
- Man: humankind (both male and female, old and young)
- Man: specifically a male human being
- Man: even more specifically an adult male human being
Those are very obviously related as they all refer to human beings.
Wikipedia includes another one that I think is even better:
- Book: a bound collection of pages (could be a blank book)
- Book: a reproduced and distributed text (not a blank book, and perhaps not even paper pages (a digital book, for example)
- Book: a verb meaning to record or make an entry in a ledger (a book!) or today in a computer file.
It seems rather common in language to find nouns become verbs and vice versa.
This would be opposed to a homonym like the word stalk:
- Stalk: the stem of a plant
- Stalk: verb meaning to follow and harass either an animal or person
There is some debate, it seems about whether polysemy is a distinct category or a subset of homonymy. It seems to me, though, that a great many homonyms are actually words that came to have a new meaning through metaphor.
Like the the mouth of an animal and the mouth of a river, for example.
Also in Wikipedia’s list of homonyms there are words like:
- Change: verb meaning to become something different
- Change: noun meaning money converted into a collection of different denominations
- Change: noun meaning the difference between an amount of money charged for an item and the amount given to pay
The above are clearly related definitions.
Anyway, a very interesting word and one that I think is useful.
Polysemy, of course, if not properly recognized, can lead to the fallacy of equivocation.