Just because you don’t get it doesn’t mean it’s vague

“What about slang words and acronyms, aren’t they vague language?” Someone asked me this recently, and I wanted to say no right away, but I had to think about why. After thinking on it, I say no, slang words and acronyms are not vague language because they do not have inherently vague meanings; if anything, they are very specific. Vague words have inherently vague meanings– vague language is language you know, but can never be sure of. Take the word noonish– we know it means sometime around noon; we just don’t know exactly when. We also don’t know how late someone might be when they say they’ll meet you at noonish: 12:05? 12:10? What about quarter past– is that noonish anymore, or just plain late? I don’t think a dictionary, slang or otherwise, will ever tie noonish down to the hands of a clock. When people talk with each other in front of you in a language you don’t understand, they’re being cryptic, not vague. Or maybe you’re just being paranoid.

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.