A single word can be used in variety of contexts and concomitantly showcase a variety of usages. When such usages are noticeably different from other uses, in linguistic parlance we might say this word is polysemous. But what’s the relationship between these different usages, or meanings, look like?
As I was wrapping up an article where I touched on this topic, an analogy came to me that really communicates the protean nature of word meaning.
Disclaimer: I’m sorry if this analogy makes you hungry, or if you’re not from the South and don’t know about this item of delight that can be experienced in the woes of summer at a little league baseball game (and for free if you catch a fowl ball and return it to the concession stand!)
The picture that comes to mind is a multi-flavored snow cone, displaying the flavorful colors of red (cherry), blue (blueberry), green (watermelon), and yellow (lemon): While these flavors may have their own colors — because they have all been infused into the same cone of ice — the flavors and colors merge (or melt, if consumed in Texas), creating purple (cherry-blueberry) and orange (lemon-cherry) or whatever other colors are instigated because of their proximal association with another variety.
The semantic potential of a word is much the same as this snow cone. It can be comprised of an assortment of senses that are all contingent upon their contextual environment of whatever proposition is sought to be communicated through this lexeme in a given syntagm (or utterance).
A lot of times, though, I think it is more natural to think of "a word's meaning" as being either this or that. Well, you're Greek teacher might tell you, "μετα either means Instrument or Means—you have to decide." But I hate to tell you, that's not how language—or rather, our thinking (i.e. our conceptualization) — necessarily works. We often blur accepted categories of meaning in our everyday speech. We just don't realize it because we do it so quickly and so — believe it or not — naturally. In all reality, it's when we start looking at language on a scientific table that we run into problems, that we get snagged by certain uses. Take a look at how Schlesinger illustrated this back in 1979 using the preposition with (I know, I wish that was my last name, too):
[If you want to know why they're arranged in this order check out the picture in the following footnote].
If this be so, how should it be modeled in our biblical language lexica? Or do we just mentally take note (of this conceptual reality) and leave this level of analysis for the individual to decipher? If so, should the lexicographer provide tips on how to do this? What are your thoughts?
Schlesinger, I. 1979. Cognitive structures and semantic deep structures: the case of the instrumental.
Journal of Linguistics