The modern term polysemy was popularized by Bréal in 1887. Most modern linguistics dealing with the topic of polysemy refers to the crucial date, but they rarely look further back into the past.
The “roots” of the concept of polysemy lie in the Greek philosophy, that is, the dispute surrounding the problem of naturalness or arbitrariness of signs as debated in Plato`s Cratylus. In his account of Plato`s contribution to linguistics, Fred Householder points out that Democritus (460-mid-4th century B.C.) offered four arguments in favor of arbitrariness:
1) Homonymy or polysemy — the same sequence of phonemes may be associated with two or more unrelated meanings;
2) Polyonymy or isorrophy — the existence of synonyms;
3) Metonymy — the fact that words and meaning change;
4) Nonymy — the non-existence of single words for simple or familiar ideas.
Polysemy meant primarily what was later to be called “homonymy”, referring to the multiple, but unrelated meaning of a word. Bréal still subsumed homonymy under the heading of polysemy.
The term polyonymy was also used by the Stoics studying how one and the same object may receive many different names, how it can become “many named” or polyonomous.
During the middle Ages the interpretation by the Holy Scriptures came up against the problem of polysemy that was acknowledged, but one that had been tampted (by the theory of four senses).
The first who used the tern polysemous in a relatively modern sense was Dante, who wrote about polysemous character of a poem: “Istius operis non est simplex sensus, immo dici potest polysemum, hoc est plurium sensum” (“this work doesn`t have one simple meaning, on the contrary, I say that it can be polysemous, that is can have many meanings”).
When presenting his poem to Cangrante della Scala, Dante makes immediately clear that it has to be read as a “polysemous” (“polysemantic”) message. One of the most celebrated examples of what Dante means of polysemy is given in his analyses of some verses of Psalm, in “Exit Israel de Aegypto”. Following the medieval theory, Dante says concerning the first verse of the Psalm: “ If we look at the letter it means the exodus of the sons of Israel from Egypt at the time of Moses; if we look at the allegory, it means our redemption through Christ; if we look at the moral sense it means the conversation of soul from the misery of sin to the state of grace; if we look at the mystical sense it means the departure of sanctified spirit from the servitude of his corruption to the freedom of eternal glory”.
Thinking about meaning, language and it`s relation to the real and figurative word advanced enormously during the Renaissance, but real research into the multiplicity of meaning only began in the 18th century, with the study of neologisms, synonyms and the figures of speech.
Bréal observed modern meaning of the word, yesterday`s and today`s meaning, with which we first become familiar—something recently rediscovered in England. In 1985, the department of English at the Birmingham ran of computer analysis of words as they are actually used in English and came up with the surprising results. The primary dictionary meaning of words are often far from the sense in which they were actually used. Keep, for instance, is usually defined as to retain, but in fact the word is much more often employed in the sense of continuing, as in “keep cool” and “keep smiling”. See is only rarely required in the sense of utilizing one`s eyes, but much more often used to express the idea of knowing, as in “I see what you mean” .
Language understanding and language acquisition follow the opposite route of language change. In both cases, the last, not the first or primitive meaning of a word is a basic meaning.
In Anglo-American world, polysemy was rediscovered with the advent of cognitive semantics in 1980s. Cognitive linguists began to reconnect synchronic and diachronic research into meaning.
Bréal knew that, diachronically, polysemy stems from the fact that the new meaning or values that words acquire in use do not automatically eliminate the old ones — polysemy is therefore the result of semantic innovation. The new and the old meanings exist in the parallel. And yet, synchronically, or in language use, polysemy doesn`t really exist — sense selection in the comprehension process is not a problem at all. In the context of discourse a word has one meaning — except, one should point out, in jokes and puns. The most important factor that brings about the multiplication of meaning diachronically and that helps to “reduce” the multiplicity of meaning synchronically is the context of discourse. We understand polysemantic words because the words are always used in the context of a discourse and a situation, which eliminate all the adjoining meanings in favour of only one in question .
Bréal was fascinated by the fact that when talking to each other we neither get confused by the multiplicity of meaning that a word may have, nor are we bothered with the etymological ancestry of a word, traced by historical dictionaries. The scientist was acutely aware of the fact that semantic, cognitive and developmental side of the language was not yet on a par with the advances made in the study of phonetics, of the more physiological side of language. With Bréal semantics as a linguistic discipline made a first step into the future, the future in which we are still participating and to which we are still contributing beyond the end of the 20th century.
Polysemy was illustrated by the research undertaken by Hans Blumerberg, Uriel Weireich, Harald Weireich, James McCawley, Charles Fillmore.
Modern linguists also pay great attention to the investigations in the semantic sphere. The traditional distinction between polysemy and homonymy is based on whether there is one or two lexical items involved.