In a word: polysemy

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word:


People who allow themselves to get upset over changes in language are usually objecting to two phenomena that linguists have identified as commonplace and natural.

The first is functional shift, in which a word achieves an additional syntactic function: nouns becoming verbs, verbs becoming nouns, and the like. The second is polysemy (pronounced PAHL-uh-see-me), in which words develop several or many meanings. In one of the more extreme polysemous developments, a word can take on an opposite meaning, as dust (v.) can mean to clean up small particles (dust the furniture) or to apply small particles (dust the Bundt cake with powdered sugar).

It happens. Live with it. It contributes to the resonance of poetry and the humor of double entendre.

Example: Geoffrey Pullum, posting April 10, 2011, at Language Log: “The people who think clarity involves lack of ambiguity, so we have to strive to eliminate all multiple meanings and should never let a word develop a new sense … they simply don’t get it about how language works, do they? Languages love multiple meanings. They lust after them. They roll around in them like a dog in fresh grass.”

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