In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Polysemy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Monographs
  • Anthologies
  • The Co-Predication Issue
  • Polysemy in Cognition, Communication, and Development
  • Polysemy and Semantic Change

Linguistics Polysemy
Ingrid Lossius Falkum, Agustin Vicente
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0259


A word is said to be polysemous when it is associated with two or several related senses (e.g., a straight line/a washing on a line/a line of bad decisions; lose a wallet/lose a relative; a handsome man/a handsome gift). It is distinguished from monosemy, where a word form is associated with a single meaning, and homonymy, where a single word form is associated with two or several unrelated meanings (e.g., the ‘financial institution’ and ‘riverside’ meanings of bank). Although the distinctions between polysemy, monosemy, and homonymy may seem clear at an intuitive level, they have proven difficult to draw in practice. Some problems are how to count senses or meanings; how to decide whether two senses are related, and in which way they are related; and how to tell apart polysemy from pragmatic effects that affect lexical meanings. Some tests have been proposed in the literature, but such tests do not give uniform results, in part because there are different ways in which an expression can be polysemous. There is an emerging consensus concerning the following “minimal” taxonomy of polysemy, such that the polysemy a word displays can belong to at least one of the following patterns: (i) irregular or accidental polysemy (e.g.,The Sun is a star/Mary is a star), (ii) regular polysemy (e.g., catch the rabbit/order the rabbit), and (iii) logical or inherent polysemy (e.g., The book is interesting/the book is heavy). The current literature approaches polysemy from different perspectives and research traditions, including lexicography, formal semantics, cognitive linguistics, distributional semantics, psycholinguistics, pragmatics, and computational linguistics.

General Overviews

Research on polysemy is varied for two different reasons. First, polysemy is a multifarious phenomenon in itself. Second, the topic is approached in different ways by different research traditions. Thus, most general overviews are not entirely general: either they deal with a certain kind of polysemy, or they are concerned with a certain way of approaching (aspects of) the phenomenon. Geeraerts 1993, Taylor 2003a, Taylor 2003b, and Cruse 2004 are good introductions to the cognitive linguistics approach to polysemy. Pethö 2001 is inspired by the cognitive linguistics tradition and provides comprehensive survey of polysemy research before 2000. Kilgarriff and Gazdar 1995 takes a lexicographer’s approach to polysemy. Frisson 2009 introduces psycholinguistic research on polysemy representation. Apresjan 1974 is a classic on regular polysemy, while Boleda, et al. 2012 deals with regular polysemy from a distributional semantics perspective. Falkum and Vicente 2015 and Vicente and Falkum 2017 aim at presenting a general, interdisciplinary overview on current polysemy research.

  • Apresjan, J. D. 1974. Regular polysemy. Linguistics 14.2: 5–32.

    This is the first paper to discuss the phenomenon of “regular” polysemy.

  • Boleda, G., S. Padó, and J. Utt. 2012. Regular polysemy: A distributional model. In Proceedings of the First Joint Conference on Lexical and Computational Semantics-Volume 1: Proceedings of the main conference and the shared task, and Volume 2: Proceedings of the Sixth International Workshop on Semantic Evaluation. Edited by E. Agirre, J. Bos, M., Diab, S. Manandhar, Y. Marton, and D. Yuret, 151–160. Stroudsburg, PA: Association for Computational Linguistics.

    The authors present an empirical computational framework for the analysis of regular sense alternations.

  • Cruse, D. A. 2004. Meaning in language: An introduction to semantics and pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A concise introduction to different types of polysemy from the point of view of cognitive linguistics. See especially chapters 5 and 6.

  • Falkum, I. L., and A. Vicente. 2015. Polysemy: Current perspectives and approaches. Lingua 157:1–16.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.lingua.2015.02.002

    In this editorial for a Lingua special issue on polysemy (2015, Vol. 157), the authors provide an interdisciplinary introduction to current research on the topic.

  • Frisson, S. 2009. Semantic underspecification in language processing. Language and Linguistics Compass 3.1: 111–127.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-818X.2008.00104.x

    Discusses empirical results on the processing of homonymy versus polysemy and argues for an underspecification approach toward polysemy.

  • Geeraerts, D. 1993. Vagueness’s puzzles, polysemy’s vagaries. Cognitive Linguistics 4.3: 223–272.

    DOI: 10.1515/cogl.1993.4.3.223

    Presents evidence for the instability of the traditional lexical-semantic distinction between vagueness and polysemy.

  • Kilgarriff, A., and G. Gazdar. 1995. Polysemous relations. In Grammar and meaning: Essays in honour of Sir John Lyons. Edited by F. R. Palmer, 1–25. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Develops a lexical semantic account of regular polysemy, which includes a formal explication of the notion of relatedness of lexical meaning.

  • Pethö, G. 2001. What is polysemy? – A survey of current research and results. In Pragmatics and the flexibility of word meaning. Edited by N. T. Einkö and K. Bibok, 175–224. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    A comprehensive overview of polysemy research until 2000. Reviews work from different traditions in linguistics.

  • Taylor, J. R. 2003a. Polysemy’s paradoxes. Language Sciences 25.6: 637–655.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0388-0001(03)00031-7

    Reviews cognitive linguistic research on polysemy and points out the apparent “polysemy paradox”: In spite of the many theoretical and descriptive problems associated with polysemy, it is remarkable that speakers of a language are rarely troubled by it.

  • Taylor, J. R. 2003b. Linguistic categorization. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A good introduction to and overview of cognitive linguistic research on polysemy. See especially chapters 6–10.

  • Vicente, A., and I. L. Falkum. 2017. Polysemy. In Oxford research encyclopaedia of linguistics. Edited by M. Aronoff. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Provides a comprehensive, interdisciplinary overview of research on polysemy, including recent developments.

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