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In linguistics, a word sense is one of the meanings of a word (some words have multiple meanings, some words have only one meaning). For example, a dictionary may have over 50 different senses of the word "play", each of these having a different meaning based on the context of the word's usage in a sentence, as follows:

We went to see the play Romeo and Juliet at the theater.

The coach devised a great play that put the visiting team on the defensive.

The children went out to play in the park.

In each sentence we associate a different meaning of the word "play" based on hints the rest of the sentence gives us.

People and computers, as they read words, must use a process called word-sense disambiguation[1][2] to find the correct meaning of a word. This process uses context to narrow the possible senses down to the probable ones. The context includes such things as the ideas conveyed by adjacent words and nearby phrases, the known or probable purpose and register of the conversation or document, and the orientation (time and place) implied or expressed. The disambiguation is thus context-sensitive.

A word sense may correspond to either a seme (the smallest unit of meaning) or a sememe (the next larger unit of meaning), and polysemy is the property of having multiple semes or sememes and thus multiple senses.


Relations between sensesEdit

Often the senses of a word are related to each other within a semantic field. A common pattern is that one sense is broader and another narrower. This is often the case in technical jargon, where the target audience uses a narrower sense of a word that a general audience would tend to take in its broader sense. For example, in casual use "orthography" will often be glossed for a lay audience as "spelling", but in linguistic usage "orthography" (comprising spelling, casing, spacing, hyphenation, and other punctuation) is a hypernym of "spelling". Besides jargon, however, the pattern is common even in general vocabulary. Examples are the variation in senses of the term "wood wool" and in those of the word "bean". This pattern entails that natural language can often lack explicitness about hyponymy and hypernymy. Much more than programming languages do, it relies on context instead of explicitness; meaning is implicit within a context. Common examples are as follows:

  • The word "diabetes" without further specification usually refers to diabetes mellitus.
  • The word "angina" without further specification usually refers to angina pectoris.
  • The word "tuberculosis" without further specification usually refers to pulmonary tuberculosis.
  • The word "emphysema" without further specification usually refers to pulmonary emphysema.
  • The word "cervix" without further specification usually refers to the uterine cervix.

Usage labels of "sensu" plus a qualifier, such as "sensu stricto" ("in the strict sense") or "sensu lato" ("in the broad sense") are sometimes used to clarify what is meant by a text.

Related termsEdit

Polysemy differs from homonymy, where two different words (lexemes) happen to have the same spelling and pronunciation.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ N. Ide and J. Véronis (1998). "Word Sense Disambiguation: The State of the Art" (PDF). Computational Linguistics. 24: 1–40. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-01-06.
  2. ^ R. Navigli. Word Sense Disambiguation: A Survey, ACM Computing Surveys, 41(2), 2009, pp. 1-69.

External linksEdit