Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Fast-Food Polysemy

Posted by Neal on August 1, 2004

The various postings at Semantic Compositions about fast food (most recently here, but also here and here) remind me of something I’ve noticed about the semantics of the names of fast-food joints. I’ll call it fast-food polysemy. Polysemous (“many meanings”) is how linguists describe a word that has more than one meaning, but whose meanings are so close and clearly related that using the more powerful word ambiguous just seems silly. For example, slug can be a noun denoting a bullet or a disgusting shell-less gastropod, and also a verb meaning to hit. This word is clearly ambiguous. But the word bears can refer to flesh-and-blood mammals, or the cuddly bear-likenesses that tend to accumulate at sites where children have died, or pictures of either of the above. These meanings are so similar that you can argue that they’re not even separate meanings at all. It’s for this kind of almost-ambiguity that the word polysemy is used.

Fast-food polysemy turns up when people say something like, “I ate McDonald’s for lunch,” or “We had Arby’s last night.” When that happens, I always think, “Wow! When this person talks about a good place to eat, she really means it!” But of course they never mean anything as interesting as that; they just mean that they got their food there. So each name for a fast-food place can be seen as having two meanings: the place itself, and the food that is made there.

I’m guessing that fast-food polysemy is more common when the food is taken to go than when it’s eaten on site. After all, it’s about as easy to say, “We ate at Burger King” as it is to say, “We had Burger King.” But when it comes to “We had Burger King” vs. “We got some food from Burger King,” fast-food polysemy definitely simplifies things.

This polysemy doesn’t work with just any verb. Have or get works, but with eat, you have to be more careful. If someone says, “I ate McDonald’s for lunch,” it makes me pause, but if they left out the for lunch and just said, “I ate McDonald’s,” I might seriously wonder if they meant something other than eating McDonald’s food. And “He threw up his Taco Bell” just doesn’t work for me at all!

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3 Responses to “Fast-Food Polysemy”

  1. Anonymous said

    I have a hard time using the names of fast-food places with any verb other than “eat”, but there are a few exceptions. Of a California-only burger chain, I can say, “In-N-Out lived up to its name”.

    I think the word you’re looking for in this case is “metonymy”, though.–>

  2. [...] When I introduced the idea of polysemy (different but related meanings of a word, also discussed here), I played this part, where Barney is looking at a list of Halloween party items that the kids need [...]

  3. [...] though, it seems that Semantic Compositions and I are in good company in enjoying fast food linguistic analysis: On p. 223, Hume has a fun discussion of the alteration of chipotle to chipolte. Share this:Like [...]

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