Polysemy (was Re: most annoying word)

Subject: Polysemy (was Re: most annoying word)
From: doc -at- edwordsmith -dot- com
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Date: Tue, 7 Mar 2006 15:39:19 -0800

On Friday 03 March 2006 20:43, doc -at- edwordsmith -dot- com wrote:
> On Thursday 02 March 2006 17:23, Stuart Burnfield wrote as if on cue:
> > What's wrong with enable? One meaning is "to cause to operate (software
> > that enables the keyboard)" but another is "to make possible, practical,
> > or easy".

> There is a continuum represented here: at one end is to make easy, at the
> other, to make possible. Maybe we're mixing metaphors or something?

Wordnet to the rescue: A word can have more than one meaning. Such words
are polysemous. The noun form is polysemy, from Greek roots poly (many)+
sema (sign). Lexicographers and semanticists are familiar with this term

So the concept is well established, there is a word for it, it describes a
very simple and well-known property of words.

Congratulations to everyone who knew this already. Google 'polysemy' to
see how much more there is to know and why polysemy and dis-ambiguation are
such a hot topic.

To clear the air, I would like to share with interested listers an abridged
passage from the 1998 edition of the Wordnet book from MIT Press. I think it
has general interest for those of us with the lust for linguistic life. Too,
it covers some of the ground recently traversed about "enable"--I take this
passage as confirming Stuart Burnfield's expressed position. Thank you for
the push in the right direction, Stuart. The expression "...enables the user
to..." has the meaning you described.

Less significantly, I also read this as gesturing toward the need for a review
of 'what is context' and 'what if any hierarchy of contexts applies'. I'll
keep my eye on it. ;-)

Wordnet is a project of Princeton University.


"English has far fewer verbs than nouns, and verbs are approximately twice
as polysemous as nouns. We encounter many extended uses of verbs that do
not follow straight-forwardly from standard dictionary definitions. In
order to fit [into WordNet] the particular context in which a verb is
found, we have tended to split rather than lump senses. That is, fine
sense distinctions are explicitly drawn rather than subsumed under a more
broadly interpretable, but underspecified, single verb.

"The most frequently used verbs (have, be, run, make, set, go, take, ...)
are also highly polysemous, and their meanings often depend heavily on the
nouns with which they co-occur. This kind of polysemy often can be
discerned only if one examines the noun classes that constitute the
arguements of the verbs.

"The importance of the noun's contribution to the meaning of a verb is at
the core of much recent work in lexical semantics. Pustejovsky argues
against static, bounded word senses and proposes instead the notion of a
more flexible "Generative Lexicon."



Ned Bedinger
doc -at- edwordsmersh -dot- com

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Re: most annoying word: From: Stuart Burnfield
Re: most annoying word: From: doc

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