Saturday, April 13, 2013

Quick English lesson

I'm currently (re)reading The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson. And it's one of the few non-fiction books that I will unreservedly recommend to anyone. It would be sad if a person who studied English couldn't be said to have a "way with words," and he most definitely does. The whole thing is written in an excessible, jovial style, and is simultaneously fascinating and educational.

And here is your vocabulary word for today: polysemy. That's where you take a single word, and give it a whole buttload of meanings. "Fine," for example: not to put too fine a point on it, but a man with fine hair can pay his fine to the court, and if he's got money left and is feeling fine, can go buy some fine art.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "fine" has 14 definitions as an adjective, six as a noun and two as an adverb. Its definition fills two full pages, and takes 5,000 words to explain. "Sound" and "round" are other fine examples.

The winner, though, is a three-letter monosyllable, "set." It has 58 uses as a noun, 126 as a verb, and 10 as a participial adjective. It takes the OED 60,000 words to explain the full range of its use. Apparently, like the Tardis, it's bigger on the inside.

Ironically, though, "polysemy" only has one definition.

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