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One word, many meanings

One word, many meanings

A great many words in English have more than one meaning. Linguists call this aspect of
vocabulary polysemy.
Look at these sentences and think about how you would translate the words in italics into your
own language.
It's only fair that we should share the housework.
The Frankfurt Book Fair is a very important event for most publishers.
The forecast is for the weather to stay fair for the next week.
I"ve got fair skin and burn easily in the sun.
His marks in his final exams ranged from excellent to fair.

The firefighters managed to save the children from the burning third-floor flat.
The countryside round here is terribly flat and boring.
To join the Fitness Club, you pay a flat fee of £500.
The sonata is in B flat minor.
She finished the exercise in five minutes flat.


Fill in the form in capital letters.
Wellington is the capital of New Zealand.
You need plenty of capital to open a restaurant.
Capital punishment has been abolished in many countries.


What does "coagulate" mean?
I didn't mean to hurt you.
He's far too mean to buy her flowers.
The mean temperature for July is 25oC.
You shouldn't be so mean to your little sister.

You probably need a different word to translate fair, flat, capital and mean in each sentence.
Sometimes the meanings are clearly related - flat as in countryside has a connection with flat as in
apartment in that they both include an idea of being on one level. Sometimes, however, there is no
connection at all. For example, the meaning of fair as in Book Fair has no obvious connection with
any of the other meanings of fair. Words like this can be called homographs (words with the same
spellings but different meanings).


Being aware of polysemy
It is useful to be aware of polysemy in English for several reasons.
You need to remember that the meaning you first learnt for a word may not be the one that it has
in a new context.
You need to be aware that in English, words can sometimes be used as different parts of speech.
Flat with its apartment meaning, for instance, can become an adjective, e.g. a set of flat keys.
Learning about the range of meanings that a word can have can help you to learn several
meanings for the price of one.
It will also help you to understand jokes in English, as these are often based on polysemous words.

Language help
The context of a word with multiple meanings will usually make it absolutely clear which of the word's
possible meanings is intended. So you can understand what, for example, the noun drill probably
means in (a) a dental context, (b) an army context, (c) a road-building context, or (d) a languagelearning context.




Find the example sentence in A opposite in which fair, flat, capital or mean has the
following meaning.
1 intend
6 unkind
2 exactly
7 fixed
3 proper, just
8 neither very good nor very bad
4 city with the seat of government
9 money
5 light in colour
10 unwilling to spend money


What part of speech is the italicised word in each of the example sentences in A?
Write a synonym or explanation for each of the examples not used in 91.1.


Here are some more examples of polysemous words in English. Which word can fill all
the gaps in each group of sentences?
and we slowly began to look around the dark cave.
1 He struck a
The teenage cooks in the competition were a
for any of the adults.
made in heaven.
Their marriage has been called a
2 That bird has an unusually long
Don't forget to keep the receipt when you pay your hotel
Parliament is currently discussing a
proposing changes to copyright legislation.
3 Hannah gave us a lovely
of glasses as a wedding present.
Let's now try and
a date for our meeting next week.
My father has very
opinions about how people should behave.
4 I"ve applied for a
in our company's Paris office.
The end of the race is indicated by a
with a flag on it.
Why not
your query on an online forum? You"re bound to get a quick response.
5 I didn't get my assignment back because the teacher hadn't had time to
Sales have already passed the million
You"ve got a red
on your cheek. It looks like lipstick.
6 You need to be a special kind of person to
a successful business.
Do you fancy going for a
this evening?
Thanks to the hot weather, our shop has had a
on ice cream.


Look at the Language help box. What does drill mean in each of the four contexts suggested?


What would the given word be most likely to mean in each of the contexts suggested?
Use a dictionary if necessary.




a primary school
people planning a festival
a kitchen
people playing tennis
in a lawyer's office
people playing snooker


a post office
a bank
people playing a board game
in a restaurant
at an airport
in the theatre

Explain these one-line jokes. They are all based on polysemy.

I wondered why the tennis ball was getting bigger. Then it hit me!
Smaller babies may be delivered by a stork but the heavier ones need a crane.
Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
You know prices are rising when you buy a winter jacket and even down is up.


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