Polysemy in Winnie-the-Pooh and Other Stories
The the previous posts, we have discussed the relation of homonymy. Polysemy is another relation that involves identity in sound but not in meaning. But this time, we don’t deal with different words, but rather with the same word that has different, but related, meanings. An example would be multiple meanings of the noun key: a device used to open or close a lock; a clue, a list of answers or explanations; musical key. The relation of polysemy serves as the basis for numerous jokes. Although I don’t know whether such a statistics exists, from my observations I would say that there are even more jokes involving polysemy than homonymy. Maybe that’s because there are more instances of polysemy in a language? After all, if you look in a dictionary, you’ll see that most words are given more than one meaning. But in general, humor seems to like this idea of same sound – different meanings; it cares much less whether polysemy of homonymy is involved.
1. One of my favorite examples of homonymy in humor is from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest:
Lady Bracknell: …Are your parents living?
Jack: I have lost both my parents.
Lady Bracknell: To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.
The definition of the verb lose in American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language contains, among the rest, the
following two sub-meanings:
1. To be unsuccessful in retaining possession of; mislay: He’s always losing his car keys.
2. To be left alone or desolate because of the death of: lost his wife.
Obviously, Jack Worthing uses the verb lost in the second sense when he talks about his parents. However, lady Bracknell chooses to interpret it under the first sense, which creates the humorous effect.
Let us now turn to Winnie-the-Pooh! Authors of children’s books, in general, use language very creatively, and here we see some examples.
2. Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders.
(“What does ‘under the name’ mean?” asked Christopher Robin. “It means he had the name over the door in gold letters, and lived under it.”)
Prepositions tend to be many-way polysemous, and here, Milne is playing with the polysemy of under. Here is one more example from the same book:
3. Context: Winnie-the-Pooh realizes that the “bell-rope” used by Owl is the tail that Eeyore had lost.
“Owl,” said Pooh solemnly, “you made a mistake. Somebody did want it.”
“Eeyore. My dear friend Eeyore. He was – he was fond of it.”
“Fond of it?”
“Attached to it,” said Winnie-the-Pooh sadly.
Macmillan Dictionary includes the following two meanings for the adjective attached: “joined or fixed to something” and “liking someone very much”. In this case, both interpretations are appropriate for describing the relation between Eeyore and his tail.
4. Let us now turn to movies. In the famous series The Nanny, Niles the butler loves laughing at Ms. Babcock., Maxwell’s business partner. Here is one example. Ms. Babcock phones, and the following conversation takes place:
NILES: It’s Ms. Babcock for you.
MAXWELL: I’ll take her in the library. (AND HE EXITS)
NILES: (SOTTO) Miss Babcock loves to be taken in the library.
I suppose there is no need to discuss the polysemy of the verb take in detail!
5. And here is an example from Shrek:
SHREK: For your information, there’s a lot more to ogres than people think.
SHREK: Example? Okay, um, ogres are like onions. (he holds out his onion)
DONKEY (sniffs the onion): They stink?
SHREK: Yes – - No!
DONKEY: They make you cry?
DONKEY: You leave them in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin’ little white hairs.
SHREK: No! Layers! Onions have layers. Ogres have layers! Onions have layers. You get it? We both
have layers. (he heaves a sigh and then walks off)
Layers (of onions) and layers (of ogres, in the sense of psychological complexity) – these are, again, two related meanings of the same word.
In the upcoming posts, we will see how polysemy is employed in riddles, and also consider some more jokes about Stierlitz, this time the ones that use polysemy, rather than homonymy.