I read a Wikipedia article a while ago about semantics. It explained that each meaning of a word fits into one of five categories. For example, the word head has a literal meaning as a piece of anatomy. However, you can also have the head of a line, where head has a figurative meaning as the first person in a queue. The article had more distinctions than just literal and figurative.

I don't want to argue whether or not five is the correct number of categories, I just want to find the name of this concept. What is it called? Bonus points if you can find the Wikipedia article!

  • 1
    You may want to look at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polysemy
    – Alex B.
    Jul 27, 2019 at 2:17
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    @AlexB. Funnily enough, I just came across that article the other day while answering another SE question! What I'm looking for is a formal classification of each type of polysemy.
    – CJ Dennis
    Jul 27, 2019 at 2:28
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    You might be looking in the wrong concepts. Since all "meaning" is mental and not available to senses or instruments, one might do better to look at the classification of metaphor, which constitutes the vast majority of "meanings", anyway. Starting with Lakoff and Johnson, there is a lot of work on the semantics of metaphor.
    – jlawler
    Jul 27, 2019 at 16:16
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    Tastes differ. I consider them all just variants on semantic frame mapping; in semantics it's meaning that controls, not syntactic shape. And metaphors can have multiple interpretations -- too many to categorize satisfactorily.
    – jlawler
    Jul 27, 2019 at 20:05
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    I just found en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphorical_extension. Explores the idea but still not the right concept.
    – CJ Dennis
    Jul 28, 2019 at 3:27

1 Answer 1


I found the article! It is sememe:

There are five types of sememes: two denotational and three connotational, the latter occurring only in phrase units (they do not reflect the denotation):

  1. Denotational 1: Primary denotation, for example "head" (body);
  2. Denotational 2: Secondary denotation by resemblance with other denotation: "head" (ship);
  3. Connotational 1: Analogous in function or nature as the original denotation, for example, "head" used as managing or leading positions, which is similar to the role or function of "head" in the operation of the human body;
  4. Connotational 2: Emotive, e.g. meaning in "honey";
  5. Connotational 3: Evaluative, e.g. meaning in "sneak" – move silently and secretly for a bad purpose

So the classification is into denotational and connotational sememes.

  • Fair enough. The comments are a bit heady to be honest.
    – vectory
    Jul 30, 2019 at 7:49

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