The many meanings of “hot” and other short words

I was ordering one of those new chicken-and-salad McWraps today, and I asked if the chicken were hot. I had to clarify I meant “hot as in temperature,” not “hot as in spicy.” It got me to thinking about how many meanings there are to the word hot:

  1. High-temperature
  2. Spicy
  3. Stolen
  4. Sexy
  5. Turned on (both sexually and, in the case of a microphone, electronically)
  6. Bright, neon color (like hot pink)
  7. Currently popular (like products that “are really hot right now” or a “hot topic”)
  8. Angry

Thinking about the many meanings of hot (or the “polysemy” of hot, if you will) got me to thinking about other words that are polysemic. Those that came to mind were all one-syllable words: on, cold, run, pan, out… It makes me wonder if it is natural for people to glom onto one-syllable words and load them with meanings so they can use them a lot. After all, it is quicker to use monosyllabic words; they have a punch to them (punch itself being both monosyllabic and polysemous). Polysyllabic words, like extemporaneous and entomological, don’t tend to be polysemic. I Googled “polysemous monosyllabic words” just now to see if linguists have recognized and written about this tendency in language, and I found this:

Because of the well known association between frequency and polysemy on the one hand and frequency and shortness on the other, polysemy should also be a frequent phenomenon in monosyllabic words. (Fenk-Oczlon & Fenk, 2008, p. 59)

So there. I’m not the only one who’s ever noticed this.🙂

How about you? Have you noticed this phenomenon?

References

Fenk-Oczlon, G. & Fenk, A. (2008). Complexity trade-offs between the subsystems of language. In M. Miestamo, K. Sinnemäki, & F. Karlsson (Eds.) Language complexity: Typology, contact, change, pp. 43-65. Amsterdam, NL: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

Author: Daniel Greene

I facilitate communication between Deaf and hearing people, and I teach people American Sign Language (ASL) and interpreting. Apart from doing the work I love, my greatest joys are family & friends, entertainment, food, photography, and travel.

1 thought on “The many meanings of “hot” and other short words”

  1. I hadn’t noticed this connection between monosyllabic and polysemic words, but now my mind is flooded with examples! Sick, bad, cool, high, gay…they’re everywhere. Thanks for this little morsel to chew on.

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