The meaning

of english words


What Is «Meaning»?

Polysemy. Semantic Structure of the Word

Types of Semantic Components

Meaning and Context

What Is «Meaning»?

The linguistic science at present is not able to put forward a
definition of meaning which is conclusive. However, there are certain
facts of which we can be reasonably sure, and one of them is that the
very function of the word as a unit of communication is made possible by
its possessing a meaning. Therefore, among the word’s various
characteristics, meaning is certainly the most important.

Generally speaking, meaning can be more or less described as a component
of the word through which a concept (mental phenomena) is communicated.
Meaning endows the word with the ability of denoting real objects,
qualities, actions and abstract notions. The relationships between
“referent” (object, etc. denoted by the word), “concept” and “word” are
traditionally represented by the following triangle:

Thought or Reference

(Concept = mental phenomena)

Symbol Referent

(word) (object denoted by the word)

By the «symbol» here is meant the word; “thought” or “reference” is
concept. The dotted line suggests that there is no immediate relation
between “word” and “referent”: it is established only through the

On the other hand, there is a hypothesis that concepts can only find
their realization through words. It seems that thought is dormant till
the word wakens it up. It is only when we hear a spoken word or read a
printed word that the corresponding concept springs into mind. The
mechanism by which concepts (i. e. mental phenomena) are converted into
words (i. e. linguistic phenomena) and the reverse process by which a
heard or a printed word is converted into a kind of mental picture are
not yet understood or described.

The branch of linguistics which specialises in the study of meaning is
called semantics. As with many terms, the term «semantics» is ambiguous
for it can stand, as well, for the expressive aspect of language in
general and for the meaning of one particular word in all its varied
aspects and nuances (i. e. the semantics of a word = the meaning(s) of a


Semantic Structure of the Word

It is generally known that most words convey several concepts and thus
possess the corresponding number of meanings. A word having several
meanings is called polysemantic, and the ability of words to have more
than one meaning is described by the term polysemy.

Polysemy is certainly not an anomaly. Most English words are
polysemantic. It should be noted that the wealth of expressive resources
of a language largely depends on the degree to which polysemy has
developed in the language. Sometimes people who are not very well
informed in linguistic matters claim that a language is lacking in words
if the need arises for the same word to be applied to several different
phenomena. In actual fact, it is exactly the opposite: if each word is
found to be capable of conveying at least two concepts instead of one,
the expressive potential of the whole vocabulary increases twofold.
Hence, a well-developed polysemy is a great advantage in a language.

On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the number of sound
combinations that human speech organs can produce is limited. Therefore
at a certain stage of language development the production of new words
by morphological means is limited as well, and polysemy becomes
increasingly important for enriching the vocabulary. From this, it
should be clear that the process of enriching the vocabulary does not
consist merely in adding new words to it, but, also, in the constant
development of polysemy.

The system of meanings of any polysemantic word develops gradually,
mostly over the centuries, as more and more new meanings are added to
old ones, or oust some of them. So the complicated processes of polysemy
development involve both the appearance of new meanings and the loss of
old ones. Yet, the general tendency with English vocabulary at the
modern stage of its history is to increase the total number of its
meanings and in this way to provide for a quantitative and qualitative
growth of the language’s expressive resources.

When analysing the semantic structure of a polysemantic word, it is
necessary to distinguish between two levels of analysis.

On the first level, the semantic structure of a word is treated as a
system of meanings. For example, the semantic structure of the noun
“fire” could be roughly presented by this scheme (only the most frequent
meanings are given):


The above scheme suggests that meaning (I) holds a kind of dominance
over the other meanings conveying the concept in the most general way
whereas meanings (II)—(V) are associated with special circumstances,
aspects and instances of the same phenomenon.

Meaning (I) (generally referred to as the main meaning) presents the
centre of the semantic structure of the word holding it together. It is
mainly through meaning (I) that meanings (II)—(V) (they are called
secondary meanings) can be associated with one another, some of them
exclusively through meaning (I) — the main meaning, as, for instance,
meanings (IV) and (V).

It would hardly be possible to establish any logical associations
between some of the meanings of the noun “bar” except through the main

Bar, n

Meaning’s (II) and (III) have no logical links with one another whereas
each separately is easily associated with meaning (I): meaning (II)
through the traditional barrier dividing a court-room into two parts;
meaning (III) through the counter serving as a kind of barrier between
the customers of a pub and the barman.

Yet, it is not in every polysemantic word that such a centre can be
found. Some semantic structures are arranged on a different principle.
In the following list of meanings of the adjective “dull” one can hardly
hope to find a generalized meaning covering and holding together the
rest of the semantic structure.

Dull, adj.

A dull book, a dull film — uninteresting, monotonous, boring.

A dull student — slow in understanding, stupid.

Dull weather, a dull day, a dull colour — not clear or bright.

A dull sound — not loud or distinct.

A dull knife — not sharp.

Trade is dull — not active.

Dull eyes (arch.) — seeing badly.

Dull ears (arch.) — hearing badly.

There is something that all these seemingly miscellaneous meanings have
in common, and that is the implication of deficiency, be it of colour
(m. III), wits (m. II), interest (m. I), sharpness (m. V), etc. The
implication of insufficient quality, of something lacking, can be
clearly distinguished in each separate meaning.

Dull, adj.

Uninteresting — deficient in interest or excitement.

… Stupid — deficient in intellect.

Not bright- deficient in light or colour.

Not loud — deficient in sound.

Not sharp — deficient in sharpness.

Not active — deficient in activity.

Seeing badly — deficient in eyesight.

Hearing badly — deficient in hearing.

The transformed scheme of the semantic structure of “dull” clearly shows
that the centre holding together the complex semantic structure of this
word is not one of the meanings but a certain component that can be
easily singled out within each separate meaning.

On the second level of analysis of the semantic structure of a word:
each separate meaning is a subject to structural analysis in which it
may be represented as sets of semantic components.

The scheme of the semantic structure of “dull” shows that the semantic
structure of a word is not a mere system of meanings, for each separate
meaning is subject to further subdivision and possesses an inner
structure of its own.

Therefore, the semantic structure of a word should be investigated at
both these levels: 1) of different meanings, 2) of semantic components
within each separate meaning. For a monosemantic word (i. e. a word with
one meaning) the first level is naturally excluded.

Types of Semantic Components

The leading semantic component in the semantic structure of a word is
usually termed denotative component (also, the term referential
component may be used). The denotative component expresses the
conceptual content of a word.

The following list presents denotative components of some English
adjectives and verbs:

Denotative components

lonely, adj. — alone, without company …

notorious, adj. — widely known

celebrated, adj. — widely known

to glare, v. — to look

to glance, v. — to look

to shiver, v. — to tremble

to shudder, v. — to tremble

It is quite obvious that the definitions given in the right column only
partially and incompletely describe the meanings of their corresponding
words. They do not give a more or less full picture of the meaning of a
word. To do it, it is necessary to include in the scheme of analysis
additional semantic components which are termed connotations or
connotative components.

Denotative Connotative

components components

The above examples show how by singling out denotative and connotative
components one can get a sufficiently clear picture of what the word
really means. The schemes presenting the semantic structures of “glare”,
“shiver”, “shudder” also show that a meaning can have two or more
connotative components.

The given examples do not exhaust all the types of connotations but
present only a few: emotive, evaluative connotations, and also
connotations of duration and of cause.

Meaning and Context

It’s important that there is sometimes a chance of misunderstanding when
a polysemantic word is used in a certain meaning but accepted by a
listener or reader in another.

It is common knowledge that context prevents from any misunderstanding
of meanings. For instance, the adjective “dull”, if used out of context,
would mean different things to different people or nothing at all. It is
only in combination with other words that it reveals its actual meaning:
“a dull pupil”, “a dull play”, “dull weather”, etc. Sometimes, however,
such a minimum context fails to reveal the meaning of the word, and it
may be correctly interpreted only through a second-degree context as in
the following example: “The man was large, but his wife was even
fatter”. The word “fatter” here serves as a kind of indicator pointing
that “large” describes a stout man and not a big one.

Current research in semantics is largely based on the assumption that
one of the more promising methods of investigating the semantic
structure of a word is by studying the word’s linear relationships with
other words in typical contexts, i. e. its combinability or

Scholars have established that the semantics of words which regularly
appear in common contexts are correlated and, therefore, one of the
words within such a pair can be studied through the other.

They are so intimately correlated that each of them casts, as it were, a
kind of permanent reflection on the meaning of its neighbour. If the
verb “to compose” is frequently used with the object “music”, so it is
natural to expect that certain musical associations linger in the
meaning of the verb “to composed”.

Note, also, how closely the negative evaluative connotation of the
adjective “notorious” is linked with the negative connotation of the
nouns with which it is regularly associated: “a notorious criminal”,
“thief”, “gangster», “gambler”, “gossip”, “liar”, “miser”, etc.

All this leads us to the conclusion that context is a good and reliable
key to the meaning of the word.

It’s a common error to see a different meaning in every new set of
combinations. For instance: “an angry man”, “an angry letter”. Is the
adjective “angry” used in the same meaning in both these contexts or in
two different meanings? Some people will say «two» and argue that, on
the one hand, the combinability is different (“man” —name of person;
“letter” — name of object) and, on the other hand, a letter cannot
experience anger. True, it cannot; but it can very well convey the anger
of the person who wrote it. As to the combinability, the main point is
that a word can realize the same meaning in different sets of
combinability. For instance, in the pairs “merry children”, “merry
laughter”, “merry faces”, “merry songs” the adjective “merry” conveys
the same concept of high spirits.

The task of distinguishing between the different meanings of a word and
the different variations of combinability is actually a question of
singling out the different denotations within the semantic structure of
the word.

1) a sad woman,

2) a sad voice,

3) a sad story,

4) a sad scoundrel (= an incorrigible scoundrel)

5) a sad night (= a dark, black night, arch. poet.)

Obviously the first three contexts have

Г.Б.Антрушина, О.В.Афанасьева. Лексикология английского языка. — М. Изд.
Дрофа. 1999

F.R.Palmer. Semantics. A new outline. — M. V.Sh. 1982

Only a fragment of the semantic structure of “bar” is given to
illustrate the point.


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