Polysemy

From Academic Kids

Polysemy (from the Greek πολυσημεία = multiple meaning) is the capacity for every sign to have multiple meanings. This is a pivotal concept within social sciences, such as media studies and sociolinguistics, due to the ideological implications.

According to Dick Hebdige (1979: 117) polysemy means, "each text is seen to generate a potentially infinite range of meanings," making, according to Middleton), "any homology, out of the most heterogeneous materials, possible. The idea of signifying practice texts not as communicating or expressing a pre-existing meaning but as 'positioning subjects' within a process of semiosis changes the whole basis of creating social meaning" (1990: 165).

Polysemes

A polyseme is a word or phrase with multiple, related meanings. Polysemes share an etymology, unlike homonyms, which have developed from different sources and coincidently settled upon the same form.

The difference between homonyms and polysemes is subtle. Lexicographers define polysemes within a single dictionary entry.

Examples of polysemes

  • Mole
  1. a small burrowing mammal
  2. consequently, there are several different entities called moles (see the Mole disambiguation page). Although these refer to different things, their names derive from 1.
    e.g. A Mole (espionage) burrows for information hoping to go undetected.
  • Bank
  1. a financial institution
  2. a synonym for 'rely upon' (e.g. "I'm your friend, you can bank on me"). It is different, but related, as it derives from the theme of security initiated by 1
However: a river bank is a homonym to 1 and 2, as they do not share etymologies. It is a completely different meaning.
  • Milk
    • The verb milk (e.g. "he's milking it for all he can get") derives from the process of obtaining milk.


References

  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0335152759.
    • Hebdige (1979).
  • O'Sullivan, et.al. (1994) Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415061733de:Polysemie

pl:Polisemia ru:Полисемия

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