There is No Need for the Terms Polysemy and Homonymy in Lexicography

  • Henning Bergenholtz Centre for Lexicography, Aarhus University, Denmark and Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa
  • Heidi Agerbo Centre for Lexicography, Aarhus University, Denmark (
Keywords: meaning, polysemy, homonymy, lemma, headword, lexical word, grammatical word, orthographical word, text word


This paper describes a radically different approach to polysemy and homonymy from the ones normally presented in linguistic and lexicographic literature on this topic. Our main criti¬cism of the traditional approaches lies in their use of the term "word": If a word is defined as a linguistic sign, it means that it only has one expression and one meaning, and this entails that defining polysemy and homonymy as phenomena where one word has two or more meanings is not only problematic — it is impossible. For this reason, we argue that polysemy and homonymy do not exist. Furthermore, we claim that they are not even necessary concepts in lexicography as each lexeme could be represented by a lemma in an information tool. However, by changing the definitions of polysemy and homonymy to phenomena where an expression has two or more meanings, thereby focusing on the expression, it is possible to retain the terms. We propose that the best way to apply and also distinguish between polysemy and homonymy in an information tool would be to present the same expressions with different meanings as well as different grammars as homonyms, while expressions with different meanings but the same grammar are presented as polysems.
How to Cite
Bergenholtz, H., & Agerbo, H. (2014). There is No Need for the Terms Polysemy and Homonymy in Lexicography. Lexikos, 24(1).