What does polysemous mean?

Reading and interpreting information is one of the most complex things that human beings can do. In the world today there are hundreds and thousands, millions, of bits of information that we can process on a daily basis. It’s no wonder that people can misunderstand things or each other. To better understand some of the confusion that occurs it’s helpful to give things a label. This then provides individuals and groups with the opportunity to identify, analyse, and discuss the different elements of communication. So, what is the word for a word that can be interpreted in different ways?

Polysemous is the word used to describe a word that has more than one meaning. The word itself is made up of two parts ‘poly’ and ‘semous’. Poly- meaning ‘many’ and -semous meaning ‘sign’. Polysemous can also be used to describe phrases and sentences that can have more than one meaning.

When we start to look at communication in this level of detail we can easily start to see how simple it is to misunderstand someone or something, or even be misunderstood ourselves. Because of this, it’s safe to assume that at some point everyday someone is going to misunderstand something you say or do or vice versa. This knowledge can be very helpful when it comes to conducting yourself on a daily basis to help minimise confusion.

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Polysemous: The word itself

Like all words the word polysemous is made up of parts. As explained previously, the parts that make up polysemous are poly- meaning ‘many’ and -semous meaning ‘sign’. If you look at other words that include these parts you can start to see how the consistency of meaning is achieved. For example,

Polyglot – A person who can communicate in many languages.

Polyamorous – Having a romantic relationship with more than one person at a time.

Polygon – A two-dimensional shape that has many sides and angles.

Polyhedron – A three-dimensional shape that has made faces and edges.

Semantics – The study of meaning.

Semaphore – A system of sending messages by hold your arms, or flags, in certain positions.

Seme – A sign or symbol; the smallest unit of meaning.

Example of polysemous word

We know that a polysemous word has multiple meanings and interpretations. So, here is one of the most powerful polysemous words. ‘Set’. Check out all these possible meanings.

  1. A scoring component in the game tennis.
  2. To arrange, fix, adjust.
  3. The process of giving a substance time to settle and solidify.
  4. (Of the sun, moon, or another celestial body) appear to move towards and below the Earth’s horizon as the Earth rotaes.
  5. A group or collection of things.

The list goes on.

What other polysemous words can you think of?

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Examples of polysemous sentences

Polysemous isn’t just used to refer to words. It can be used to refer to sentences too. Here are some good examples of polysemous sentences; sentences with multiple meanings.

  1. New obesity study looks for larger test group.
  2. Criminals get nine months in violin case.
  3. You look hot.
  4. Call me a taxi.
  5. Stolen painting found by tree.

This is why grammar and punctuation are so important. But sometimes, even they can’t help avoid the confusion.

Famous misunderstandings

Here are a couple of the most famous and enjoyable examples of polysemous words and sentences at play.

What is the name for a word that has only one meaning?

The name for a word that has only one meaning is monosemous.

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