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.

DONKEY: Example?

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.

10 Responses to “Polysemy in Winnie-the-Pooh and Other Stories”

  1. Would that not be “Ogres have lairs”? Surely that’s at least part of the meaning, if not pretty much all of it?

    (Looks like a blog worth revisiting, by the way. Best of luck!)

  2. Dear Tensile,
    Thank you for this comment! I didn’t think about this option, which makes the dialogue even more meaningful. That would be an additional layer(!), that of homonymy.
    The double interpretation of ‘layers’ does, I believe, play a role as well, given the context of the dialogue. Shrek is talking specifically about the psychological complexity of ogres. And also, in the script, the word appears as ‘layers’. But the addition of ‘lairs’ indeed makes the meaning richer!

  3. Hi, I am a 15 years old student and i have a project for school about polysemy. Coyld you please give me some examples of other cartoons, tv shows, writers, poets etc that use polysemy?
    I would also like to congratulate you about your blog! It is very interesting and it has helped me a lot!!!

    • Hi Stella,

      Thanks for your interest! I am glad that the blog was helpful. There are los of polysemy examples in riddles, e.g.:
      What has a neck but no head? A bottle.
      What has a fork and mouth but cannot eat? A river.
      If you don’t feel well, what do you probably have? A pair of gloves on your hands.
      What’s the best way to make pants last? Make the jacket first.
      A man who worked in a butcher shop was six feet tall and wore size eleven shoes. What did he weigh? Meat.

      I thnk I also have some polysemy examples in the post that is dedicated to ambiguity in cartoons. I’ll check whether I have additional polysemy cartoons on my computer.

      Good luck!

    • I’ve looked at the post on lexical ambiguity in cartoons: the one on “safe sex” is relevant, but I don’t know whether it will be OK to use that for a school project, that’s up to you to decide. :) Also, I think you could use the following joke:

      A drunk trying to cross the street was knocked down by a bus. A policeman helped him to his feet and said, “There’s a zebra crossing a few yards away from here.”
      “Well, I hope he is having better luck than I am,” replied the drunk

      ‘Zebra’ is polysemous here, and there is also a (somewhat more complicated) story about ‘crossing’.

      • Thank you so much!!!
        i don’t want to be annoying but is there any chance you could recommend some literary books with examples of polysemy (like Alice in Wonderland or something…) You see the project is for my literacy class and it would be good to include something like this in my presentation… Oh, and maybe other movies and television series to make it more interesting…
        However, if you are not able to help right now, it’s ok, I’ll understand. You have already helped me much…!

        • I think I’ve used those examples from literature / movies that I had noticed in this post. I can say that Lewis Carroll and Oscar Wilde play with language a lot in their works, but I don’t think I’ve noticed additional examples specifically of polysemy. Lewis Carroll has many games with homonymy, but that’s a different phenomenon.

  4. HI, it’s me again. May I ask for one last favor? Do you have any colleagues with specialty in greek language? My project is focused on greek literature but I can use examples in english as well…
    Thanks again and I hope I didn’t tire you…!!!

    • I’m afraid I can’t direct you to a greek linguist. But you can try to look for greek speakers through some forums or internet communities that are devoted to this language.

      Good luck!

  5. Thank you very, very much!!!
    I’ll use the material you gave me and keep searching for examples in greek…!

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