monosemy, homonymy and polysemy

In this entry, the term word is used in the sense of ‘word-form’, i.e., anything spelled and pronounced the same way (in a given dialect) is for us the same word.

POLYSEMY consists in a variety of semantic relations through which meanings of words extend or shift so that a single word has two or more related meanings, as with nickel (the coin) and nickel (the metal). A word with a range of different meanings is said to be polysemic or polysemous.


POLYSEMY is contrasted with MONOSEMY, where one word exhibits one meaning. Some monosemous words have a vague meaning which automatically becomes more specific when it gets applied in use. For instance, a word like aunt is a monosemous item, even though it may be applied to two distinct referents: ‘father’s sister’ versus ‘mother’s sister’. Technically, we are dealing with one word and one sense here, even though the one sense may be applied to two distinct extensions.

In the case of ambiguous words, a distinction is usually made between POLYSEMY and HOMONYMY. This distinction is basically concerned with the closeness, or relatedness, of the sense of the ambiguous words.


HOMONYMY is the case of an ambiguous word whose different senses are far apart from each other and not obviously related to each other in any way with respect to a native speaker’s intuition.

In other words, HOMONYMY is the case where two words have the same form but a different meaning that cannot be related to each other. An example of homonymy is bank, which can either mean ‘financial institution’ or ‘land at river edge’, but these two senses cannot be related to each other because there is no obvious conceptual connection between the two meanings of either word.

Many words (as shown in table below) clearly show a range of distinction in meanings and most dictionaries acknowledge the distinction in the way that they list words.

WordDistinction in Meanings
boot →luggage space of car,  or  item of footwear
rake →garden implement, or dissolute fellow
tip →place for disposal of household refuse,  or  piece of useful information/advice,  or  pointed end of object
bat →the mammal,  or  the baseball implement
  • It is important to understand the difference between POLYSEMY and HOMONYMY. In both, the same word has two or more different meanings, but in HOMONYMY those meanings are not related except by accident.

Cases of homonymy are rare. The homonymous words ring → “circular band” and ring → “to make a bell sound”, as well as those shown earlier in the table above, are completely unconnected and seem precisely to be matters of mere accident except by the coincidence of sharing a single form.

The focus of this entry is POLYSEMY, which is much more common than homonymy and pose a greater challenge to the learners of English vocabulary. Hence, we’ll spend the remainder of this entry delving deeper into polysemy.

Delving deeper into polysemy

POLYSEMY is the case where a word has several very closely related meanings. In other words, a native speaker of the language has clear intuitions that the different senses are related to each other in some way.

    For example:
  • Mouth (of a river vs of an animal) is a case of polysemy.

The two senses “Mouth of a river” and “Mouth of an animal” are clearly related by the concepts of an opening from the interior of some solid mass to the outside, and of a place of issue at the end of some long narrow channel.

Polysemy is quite common in English vocabularies. Run is another more complicated case of polysemy in which the word has more than one related sense. Note that in this case, we have an example of polysemy with a verb (at least in most of its senses). So polysemy is not restricted to nouns or just one part of speech.

The multiple senses of run are related to each other in a somewhat more abstract way than in the case of senses of mouth. Some uses of run which bring out a few of its complex interrelated sense include:

  • Run a race (on foot).
  • Run for office.
  • This road runs from east to west.
  • The motor is running.
  • The water is running down the roof.
  • Run a computer program.
  • A run in a stocking.

Polysemy in nouns is quite common. Some additional examples are given below.

polysemic word and variation in senses

  • chimney →pipe or funne-like structure on a building for smoke to escape through  vs  narrow vertical space between rocks up which a climber can wriggle by pressing against the sides.
  • cup →drinking vessel  vs  brassiere cup
  • Both senses have the concept of container with a particular round shape.
  • guard →person who guards, sentinel  vs  solid protective shield, e.g. around machinery
  • Both contain the concept of protection against danger.
  • ceiling →top inner surface of a room  vs  upper limit
  • Both share the concept of a maximum upper boundary.
  • earth/Earth →our planet  vs  soil
  • They both share the concept of land at different levels of generality (earth as land, not sky; earth as soil, not water).
  • drive →as in drive a nail  vs  drive a car
  • These also share the concept of causing something to move in a particular direction.

Many linguists are beginning to realize it is much more true than not that most words have related variations in sense that depend on the particular linguistic context in which they are used. In practice, however, it is nearly impossible to draw a clear line between homonymy and polysemy.