After considering How we can use the same word in multiple different ways and distinguish it so easily, I'm wondering now how complex it can get. I'm wondering what an example is from any language that demonstrates a single verb with the most completely disparate meanings. That is, a single verb that has several totally distinct meanings that have nothing to do with each other. I'm only considering verbs here, no nouns, because there are lots of verbs that also have unrelated noun forms with unrelated meanings.

For example, one verb in English that has two kind of disparate meanings is "play":

I play, yet play them I don't play.

  1. play: have fun, perform fun activities.
  2. play: trick someone.

One that is a little better is "click":

  1. click: make a sharp sound
  2. click: press a mouse button (related because it makes the clicking sound)
  3. click: connect two things (like a seatbelt) (makes clicking sound)
  4. click: snap your tongue (makes clicking sound)
  5. click: become suddenly understandable (like the connecting two things)

It all clicked when I made a click sound by clicking my tongue, clicking the mouse, clicking the seatbelt.

Still not that good, because the verbs all relate to each other.

Some others are "train":

  1. train: teach someone
  2. train: aim something at something

"call":

  1. call: use your voice
  2. call: give a name (related to use your voice)
  3. call: pay a brief visit
  4. call: cause (a subroutine) to be executed

I can't really find any more examples actually. So it seems that it's pretty uncommon in English to have a single verb with multiple unrelated meanings. The ones with multiple meanings all relate back to the core concept the verb is about.

Even if you count these examples above as having different unrelated meanings (so click would have 5), that is only 5 different meanings, as opposed to nouns which can have dozens of different meanings.

Wondering if there are any better examples for English, or any other language, for verbs with many distinct meanings. Wondering if a language could have, say, 20 different unrelated meanings for a verb.

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    If you think about it for a minute, you will realize that meanings as close as some of these can't really be counted -- they're not discrete, countable items. Most of them are pieces of old metaphors or new ones; these are constantly changing with the technology and culture. There are a lot of individual directions that 'meaning' can go in; some good reading is Lakoff & Johnson's Metaphors We Live By, and for basic categories Frawley's Linguistic Semantics. – jlawler Sep 20 at 18:52
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    @jlawler Came here to recommend Lakoff and Johnson 1980, only to see you already had! – Draconis Sep 20 at 21:35
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    You may be looking for auto-antonyms. – Nardog Sep 21 at 14:47
  • @Nardog Ah interesting, those are some good examples :). Wondering if there is a related term like for words with multiple unrelated meanings. unlinktonym. – Lance Pollard Sep 21 at 18:00
up vote 2 down vote accepted

The English verb set is often considered to be one of the most polysemous verbs. The OED entry for the verb runs to 169 pages. Now we may disagree with their lexicographic methodology, and they may split many subsenses we would combine, but however you'd analyse it set is going to have a lot of senses.

The nitty gritty details of how you analyse each word means it's not possible to objectively determine the word with the most senses from out of all the world's 7000 languages. Even determining it for one language is difficult. But I think it's likely that set is up there.

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