Doug Discovers Polysemy
Posted by Neal on May 19, 2005
Doug said, “You know, Dad, if I wanted to be literal, when Mrs. K. says, ‘The W Table can empty their mailboxes now,’ I could say like, ‘The table doesn’t have a mailbox!’”
“Yeah, that’s called polysemy,” I told him.
“It’s when a word has different meanings; not totally different like with duck the bird and duck meaning ‘get down,’ but like what you were saying about the W Table. It’s not a mistake. People use it a lot. Like, uh, ‘I’m parked outside.’”
Doug immediately got it and laughed. No, I wasn’t parked outside, the car was parked outside! This was cool–Doug was now primed and ready to enjoy some polysemous humor. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. So I rode the wave:
“And here, Doug, here’s my grocery list. Milk and eggs and chocolate syrup are on it.”
“Ewww!” This was too good. Once his giggling had subsided a little bit, I hit him again:
“Yeah, and how about this one? I ate McDonald’s for lunch. Or maybe when it’s library day, the librarian says, ‘Oh, Mrs. K.’s room is coming in today.’”
Ah, we had some good laughs that day. I remember it like it was yesterday, which it was. Then I had to inject a serious note. “So that’s polysemy. But if you make remarks like ‘The table doesn’t have a mailbox’ too often, it’s very annoying. So please don’t do it in school, OK?”
You see, it takes years to really get a good feeling for when literal-minded humor is appreciated and when it’s not. Doug simply hasn’t had time to develop this subtle instinct, as I have.