(redirected from Polysemia)
Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus.
Related to Polysemia: polysemy, Polysemic
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the existence of more than one meaning for a given word, that is, the capability of a word to convey different information about objects and phenomena of extralinguistic reality. For example, the Russian word gorlo has four meanings: “throat” (the front part of the neck), “gullet” (the cavity behind the mouth), “neck” (the narrowed upper part of a bottle), and “estuary” (a narrow water passage). In many languages, including Russian, there are more polysemous words than words with one meaning. It is customary to differentiate polysemy from homonymy, since the meanings of a polysemous word are associated with common semantic elements (semantic attributes) and form a certain semantic unity (the semantic structure of the word).

In polysemy, a distinction is made between primary and secondary (derived) meanings; these meanings are sometimes referred to as literal and figurative, respectively. Primary meanings, as a rule, are least affected by context. With time, the relationship between the primary and secondary meanings may change. Different types of polysemy exist for different types of words; for example, there is relatively regular and irregular polysemy. Russian words designating populated areas, such as a city, village, or settlement, can also mean “the inhabitants of a populated area,” that is, they follow a definite [regular] semantic formula; secondary [figurative] meanings, for example, the application of names of animals (lion, fox) to people, are individual [irregular]. The unique combination of meanings designated by a single word is to a large extent what determines the uniqueness of the word stock of a given language. The grammatical forms of a word and syntactic constructions may also be polysemous.


Vinogradov, V. V. “Osnovnye tipy leksicheskikh znachenii slova.” Voprosy iazykoznaniia, 1953, no. 5.
Akhmanova, O. S. Ocherki po obshchei i russkoi leksikologii. Moscow, 1957.
Kurylowycz, J. “Zametki o znachenii slova.” In Ocherki po lingvistike. Moscow, 1962. (Translated from Polish, English, French, and German.)
Ullmann, S. The Principles of Semantics, 2nd ed. Glasgow, 1959.




an important concept in logic, logical semantics, semiotics, and linguistics. Polysemy was originally a linguistic concept, but it is natural that the concept should have found application in all the above-mentioned fields. Polysemy is the existence of different senses and/or meanings for a single word, expression, or phrase; the term also denotes the existence of different interpretations for a single sign or combination of signs. The term is usually applied when the different senses, meanings, or interpretations are to some extent interrelated.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
(4.)Abraham and Torok (1986) define "polysemia" as "expressing multiple meanings through a single phonetic structure" (18).
His text is now seen as an avant la lettre expression of modern man's splintered ego which produces the same breathtaking polysemia of our century's Vicente Aleixandre or Severo Sarduy.
This polysemia will then suggest a poet fully capable of comprehending the subtleties of artistic and linguistic representation.
Word-level parameters included: (a) the length of a word, expressed in number of letters; (b) the logarithm of the normative graphemic frequency of each syllable in each position of a word in Spanish (see de Vega et al., 1990); (c) the repetition, established by the cumulative count of a word repetition in each text; (d) the logarithm of the lexical frequency of a word in Spanish (Juilland & Chang-Rodriguez, 1964); and (e) the polysemia, or the number of meanings a word has in Spanish (Real Academia Espanola, 1984).
The five word-level variables had a significant impact on reading times: increases in graphemic frequency and in number of letters per word predicted word-reading time increments, but increases in polysemia, lexical frequency, and repetition were associated with reading-time decrements.
"If allegory has become once again somehow congenial for us today, as over against the massive and monumental unifications of an older modernist symbolism or even realism itself, it is because the allegorical spirit is profoundly discontinuous, a matter of breaks and heterogeneities, of the multiple polysemia of the dream rather than the homogenous representation of the symbol" (Jameson 73).
And self-referential paradoxes remind us that both moments of the dialectic are necessary: that although, thanks to the polysemia of symbols and the rich ambiguity of language, interpretation is open and partially dependent on the interpreter, plausible interpretation is constrained by context.