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The Many Possibilities of English Vocabulary Posted by on May 16, 2019 in English Grammar, English Language, English Vocabulary

Many of us understand that homonyms are words with the same spelling or pronunciation but have different meanings and origins. We encounter homonyms every day. We also deal with polysemous words, or polysemes, which are words which can be used to express different meanings but have similar origins. The difference between homonymy and polysemy is subtle, but the distinction between the two is an important one.

Image courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

I took a run to the store in my car. Since it was only going to take a second, I let my car run while I went inside. When I returned home I took a nap because I felt run down.

In the paragraph above, run is a polysemous word. The word takes on different meanings based on its usage, but it is easy to understand the meanings based on the context in which the word is used.

Homonyms may sound the same, in which case they are homophones, or they are spelled the same, making them homographs. They could even be both. But, their meanings will be completely unrelated.

There was a bat in my bedroom, so I took a bat to it to try to bat it away.

In each case, the word bat has a completely unrelated meaning from the other two.

Significantly, polysemous words will be found under the same entry in a dictionary, but homonyms will be listed separately in the dictionary.

The etymology of a word helps us to understand its polysemous nature. Let’s return to that paragraph with the words run. As a verb, run dates back to Old English and is a blend of two words with very similar meanings. The transitive verb ærnan, (or earnan) meant to ride to or to get to someplace. The intransitive verb rinnan,(or irnan) meant to flow, or run together. As a noun, it comes from the Old English noun ryne, meaning a stream or waterway. It’s easy to see the remarkably similar origin and background of each usage of the word run.

By contrast, a bat can be a noun for a flying mammal, which comes to us from the Old Norse leðrblaka, literally meaning leather flapper. Or, it could mean a stick or staff used as a weapon, from the Old English word batt. Or, it could mean to hit something with a bat, a term which comes to us from the mid-15th century. They all have very different meanings and origins. Thus, with no shared meaning or origin, the words bat must be homonyms.

I’m something of a history lover so I enjoy etymology, but you don’t need to research the history of a word to know if you are seeing a case of polyseme or homonym. The context and usage, its word sense, is usually all the clue you will need.

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