Grammar Moses: Why 'monosemy' can mean only one thing

Updated 2/4/2023 4:50 PM

One of the great things about English is its malleability.

A sentence can take on a different meaning when you apply emphasis in different places.


The same word can hold different meanings in different contexts.

We bend, shape and recombine the same words to form different thoughts.

And that's because it's a whole lot easier to find a word with multiple meanings than a word with a singular one.

Can you imagine how much the Broca's area of your frontal lobe would have to occupy in your noggin if every word had just one meaning?

What's the point of having an air fryer and a pressure cooker cluttering up your kitchen when you can have a single machine that functions as both?

One of my favorite words is "monosemy." First, it's a word with one meaning. Second, that meaning is "having one meaning."

Good luck coming up with a hefty list of monosemous English words that are common and not scientific in nature. I wrote once before about a litany of phobias, all with a different, very specific root word.

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One of my favorites is "hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia." I kid you not.

You will not be surprised to learn that this word, consisting of 15 syllables and 35 letters, describes a fear of long words.

I have a very real fear of spelling that word incorrectly.

Why all of this bizarre stream of consciousness, you may ask?

Because reader Rick Dana Barlow asked me for "the good, the bad and the ugly definitions of 'hack,'" and that seemed like a rather dry way to open today's column.

Rick didn't explain why he wanted me to do so, but he did specify "all three."

If you can't hack it, you don't have the wherewithal or fortitude to do something.

You can hack off a fish head with a sharp cleaver.

You can drive a hack if you have a taxi license.

You can hack a computer, though I wouldn't recommend it.


OK, Rick, that's four already.

You can hack up a lung if you have a chest cold.

If you don't put a lot of effort into what you do or do a lousy job of something (consider my golf game), you're a hack.

That seems antonymic of my original definition, doesn't it?

"Life hacks" are new ways of doing things to make your life easier.

By the time you read this, there probably will be a new definition.

Antiquated words

Rick Needham had a question about when a word outlives its usefulness.

"While listening to a podcast today, I heard a commentator describe the shocking 'footage' from the police bodycams of the terrible beating of Tyre Nichols," he wrote. "This got me thinking about how we commonly use outdated words. People still 'dial' numbers on their smartphones and 'hang up' when done talking. Emails can be cc'd (carbon copied) or bcc'd (blind carbon copied).

What's the proper term for these verbal vestiges of times gone by?"

Good question, Rick.

Have you ever seen a video of teenagers of today trying to figure out how to use a rotary telephone? It's hilarious. Yet they still "dial" their friends and "hang up" on their enemies -- with their fancy iPhone 14 Pro Max cellphones.

They use these outmoded terms because we old farts, who recorded images with film cameras and recorded voice and music with audiotape instead of digital blips and bloops and got calluses sticking our fingers in metal telephone dials, have conditioned them to.

If they thought hard enough about such terms, they might figure out how to pick up a rotary phone and call Grandma once in a while.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at grammar Write him at and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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