Grammar: Polysemy

Posted September 8, 2016 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Grammar Explanations, Self-Editing, Writing

Polysemy is a type of linguistic word play in which words are spelt the same and may sound the same or different. The distinction comes in its etymological meaning, its basic root word.

Polysemies are a subset under homographs, which is itself a subset under homonym (see Table 1 below).

If each meaning of the word goes back to its root meaning, then it’s polysemic. Otherwise go have a look at “Monosemy” (only one meaning).

If you break polysemy apart:

Poly- means many, much

-semy is from sēma and means sign

To decide if a word is polysemic or a homonym, look it up in the dictionary. If the dictionary states that it has the same root or a shared etymology, it’s polysemy. Of course, there are always going to be some exceptions.

Click here for a quick look at the differences between them -nyms, -graphs, -phone, and -semys.

Grammar Explanations is…

…an evolving list of the structural rules and principles that determines where words are placed in phrases or sentences as well as how the language is spoken. Sometimes I run across an example that helps explain better or another “also known as”. Heck, there’s always a better way to explain it, so if it makes quicker and/or better sense, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone on an area of grammar with which you struggle or on which you can contribute more understanding.

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Part of Speech: Semantics, Word Play, Figure of Speech
Definition: Words that use the same spelling with related BUT distinct meanings. These meanings are a branching off from the word’s original meaning.

A.k.a., polysemant, polyseme

Polysemy Related Meaning Homonym Meanings are Too Separate
mouth hole in your face

opening in a cave

strut a way to walk

rod or bar forming part of a framework designed to resist compression

advance forward movement

be in a forward position

signify promotion in rank, position, or salary

put forward reasons in an argument to support a view or action

come on to the opposite sex

circle a geometric shape

a street name

a type of movement

take take a look


lay hands on


crane type of bird

machine used to move heavy objects

clearly obviously

allow easy and accurate perception

bank financial institution

land sloping down to a river

bright shining

clear, vibrant


vivid color

bull male animal

papal edict

untrue talk

a person who buys shares hoping to sell at a higher price later

zodiac symbol

flower the best of a group

produce flowers

reach an optimum state of development

saw a tool for cutting wood

past tense of seeproverb

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Reba’s Chiller introduced me to polysemes.

Pinterest Photo Credits:

“Gonates Cave” at the bay of Plakias, Crete, is Uoaei1’s own work [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons. The Gonates caves and tunnels were dug by the German army during the occupation of Crete in World War II.

Voted Wikimedia Commons Picture of the day on 20 August 2016, “this image is a panorama consisting of multiple frames that were merged in software. As a result, this image necessarily underwent some form of digital manipulation. These manipulations may include blending, blurring, cloning, and color and perspective adjustments. As a result of these adjustments, the image content may be slightly different than reality at the points where multiple images were combined. This manipulation is often required due to lens, perspective, and parallax distortions.”

“Spoonful of Cereal” by Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service, is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.