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Language Arts


What are polysemes? This article will define polysemes, compare polysemes with homographs and homonyms, tell you how to identify polysemes, explain why polysemes are important, and give some examples of important polysemes.

The word polysemes comes from the Greek roots poly meaning “many” and seme meaning “meaning.” Thus, polyseme refers to a multiple meaning word. Polysemy is the state of being a word with multiple meanings. The word polysemes may not be used much, but there are many, many English words with multiple meanings, and this makes it a topic worth knowing about. This article explains the basics of polysemes and polysemy.

Polysemes Versus Homographs and Homonyms

Homographs and homonyms are more familiar to most people than polysemes, and it’s important to be able to distinguish them. Homographs are two or more words that have the same spelling. The fact that they are separate words means that their etymology and meaning are different, even though they look alike.

  • Wound, an injury, and wound, wrapped tightly around a core, are homographs.
  • Cricket, the insect, and cricket, the game played with a bat and ball, are also homographs.

The definition of  homograph says nothing about sound, and you can see from the example of wound, which is pronounced two different ways, and cricket which always is pronounced identically, that homographs do not have to have the same sound, but may.

Homonyms are a special type of homograph - the set of homographs that are pronounced exactly the same (and so are both homographs and homophones). So the different words spelled cricket are homonyms, but the different words spelled wound are not. (For more information about this topic, see the articles “Homographs,” “Homophones,” and “Homonyms.”)

Homographs and homonyms are not polysemes. By definition, they can’t be, because they are separate words.

How Can You Identify Polysemes?

If you look up a homograph in the dictionary, you will probably find superscript numbers before or after several iterations of the homograph, indicating that each entry is a different word. For example, you might see something like this:

1cricket /KRIH keht/ n. A member of the family of leaping insects who chirp.

2cricket /KRIH keht/ n. A game played with a bat and ball my two teams of eleven players.

There may be more entries, depending on the dictionary. In any case, in a dictionary, separate entries means separate words, whether the words are homographs or not.

Polysemes in a dictionary are numbered items under a single entry word. For example, you might see something like this:

criticism /KRIH tuh sihz uhm/ n. 1.The act of finding fault. 2. The act of evaluating based on merits and demerits, especially literary texts. 3. The scientific investigation of texts to gain understanding of their origins, history, etc.

The two numbered meanings are related meanings of the same word. They are the polysemes of criticism.

Note that each word in a set of homographs may, by itself, have polysemes. For example, some dictionaries list “a small wooden footstool” as a polyseme of 1cricket.

Why Are Polysemes Important?

If you overheard a conversation about cricket, you would know pretty quickly whether the discussion was about an insect or a game. But if your boss sent you and email saying:

“Meet me at 2 p.m. in my office. I have some criticism of your report.”

it might not be entirely clear whether your boss was about to review your work with some helpful hints for improvement or thoroughly condemn it. And this is one of the things about polysemes: because their meanings are generally closely related and apt to fit the context, it’s easier with polysemes to mistake one for the other, sometimes without even being aware that their might be another interpretation.

Some Important English Polysemes

Of course, every language has its own set of polysemes. In English, some of the important polysemes are the verbs known as auxiliary verbs (and their various forms):

  • be
  • can
  • do
  • have
  • will

Others that have many polysemes include:

  • go
  • see
  • stand
Related Articles
Homographs Homonyms Homophones