Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

“What’s polysemy?”

“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.

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4 Responses to “Doug Discovers Polysemy”

  1. Anonymous said

    I was thinking about buying a used printer from someone and I asked, “Are you missing any parts?” “No,” he answered, “I’m just missing the box and user’s manual.” Where the heck is MY user’s manual, Mom?

    Oh, this polysemy stuff isn’t so unseamly at all, it’s kinda fun!

  2. Anonymous said

    This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Anya said

    I thought this was metonomy, although I probably just don’t get the distinction.

    • KellyK said

      I think most of these jokes are metonymy, though I’d say metonymy counts as a kind of polysemy using Neal’s “fast-food polysemy” definition. That is, multiple senses similar enough not to be ambiguous, but still distinct. The M-W or Wikipedia definitions of polysemy are a lot broader–any word with two meanings.

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