Thursday, January 06, 2011

Polyemes not polymers

"Hey Mom, your tag is up," noted Crash absently as he sprawled in front of the computer. I peered at the screen, trying to figure out which window my blog was up in and what was going on with the tags. I made a non-committal noise, still scanning the screen (on which Crash was seriously multi-tasking). "Your TAG," repeated Crash, gesturing at his neck. He meant the tag in the back of my sweater, not the tag on the blog. Got it.

Context can be everything when it comes to words. The meaning of tag (a word or phrase affixed to a blog post) and tag (the strip of cloth attached to my sweater) are related, both having to do with the classification of an object (or not - as in the case of a missing grey V-neck sweater, retrieved when Math Man pulled it out of a drawer and commented that his sweater had gotten really tight, the size on the tag would have been a big clue as to why). Tag and tag are homographs, words written identically, and polysemes, words with related but slightly divergent meanings. (Homonyms are also homographs, but with different meanings — bark like a dog and bark of a tree, for example.)

Confusion can arise when you don't have the context for one of the two meanings. I posted here about sin (a shorthand for the mathematical function sine), but one of my more theologically attuned readers spent time trying to figure out what the post had to do with sin (the moral failing).

I got similarly tangled today while reading the "forecast discussion" on the National Weather Service site. (I love reading the back room chatter of the meteorologists, and how they decide what numbers to post on the shorthand forecast. I'm definitely a weather junky.) THE MODELS ARE OFFERING HIGHLY VARYING SOLUTIONS WITH REGARD TO THE SYNOPTIC SYSTEMS AND THEN RUN TO RUN CONTINUITY IS SOMEWHAT LACKING AS HAS BEEN THE CASE THIS SEASON. [Ed: yes, it's all caps in the original]. The only other place I'd encountered "synoptic" was with respect to the Gospels. I wondered if the meteorological synoptic was a polyseme of the scripture scholar's synoptic. As it turns out, no! Synoptic systems in the weather sense are large scale features - spanning thousands of kilometers. Synoptic Gospels are different eyes on the same events (and then there is John).

Secular and secular are similarly polyemes.

And for another good laugh about words and pronunciation, see this hilarious video my friend Fran tipped me off to.

Wondering about the title? My writing program kept trying to "correct" polyeme to polymer. Clearly it has chemistry leanings :)


  1. LOL!
    My husband is a meteorologist, so I hear the term "synoptic" bandied about rather frequently (even though he doesn't work in the field anymore). And the English major in me just loved this whole thing.

  2. Barb - that is cool!

  3. thanks for the tag says the man of unique numberness

  4. I'm honored to be linked here, especially via that fine video. It honestly made me laugh so hard.

    As for words, context... do not get me started! Great post.