What a mean word

Some words are perfectly suited to their alternative definitions. The word 'mean' is one of these. 'Mean' refers to the average of a set of numbers. For example, you can calculate the mean of your school marks, or the mean of your bank savings, or the mean of many other things. A mean is a cruel, unforgiving, and brutally honest number: in short, it really is a mean number.

What brought this to mind was my recent University results. My marks have been pretty good so far, during my time at uni: overall I've scored pretty highly. But there have been a few times, here and where, where I've slipped a bit below my standard. For those of you that don't know, the big thing that everyone's worried about at uni is their GPA (Grade Point Average), which is - as its name suggests - the mean of all your marks in all your subjects to date.

My GPA is pretty good (I ain't complaining), but it's a number that reflects my occasional slip-ups as clearly as it does my usual on-par performance. Basically, it's a mean number. It's a number that remembers every little bad thing you've done, so that no matter how hard you try to leave your mistakes behind you, they keep coming back to haunt you. It's a merciless number, based purely on facts and logic and cold, hard mathematics, with no room for leniency or compassion.

A mean makes me think of what (some people believe) happens when you die: your whole life is shown before you, the good and the bad; and all the little things are added up together, in order to calculate some final value. This value is the mean of your life's worth: all your deeds, good and bad, are aggregated together, for The Powers That Be to use in some almighty judgement. Of course, many people believe that this particular mean is subject to a scaling process, which generally turns out to be advantageous to the end number (i.e. the Lord is merciful, he forgives all sins, etc).

Mean is one of many words in the English language that are known as polysemes (polysemy is not to be confused with polygamy, which is an entirely different phenomenon!). A polyseme is a type of homonym (words that are spelt the same and/or sound the same, but have different meanings). But unlike other homonyms, a polyseme is one where the similarily in sound and/or spelling is not just co-incidental - it exists because the words have related meanings.

For example, the word 'import' is a homonym, because its two meanings ('import goods from abroad', and 'of great import') are unrelated. Although, for 'import', as for many other homonyms, it is possible to draw a loose connection between the meanings (e.g. perhaps 'of great import' came about because imported goods were historically usually more valuable / 'important' than local goods, or vice versa).

The word 'shot', on the other hand, is clearly a polyseme. As this amusing quote on the polyseme 'shot' demonstrates, 'a shot of whisky', 'a shot from a gun', 'a tennis shot', etc, are all related semantically. I couldn't find a list of polysemes on the web, but this list of heteronyms / homonyms (one of many) has many words that are potential candidates for being polysemes. For example, 'felt' (the fabric, and the past tense of 'feel') could easily be related: perhaps the first person who 'felt' that material decided that it had a nice feeling, and so decided to name the material after that first impression response.

I couldn't find 'mean' listed anywhere as a polyseme. In fact, for some strange reason, I didn't even see it under the various lists of homonyms on the net - and it clearly is a homonym. But personally, I think it's both. Very few homonyms are clearly polysemes - for most the issue is debatable, and is purely a matter of speculation, impossible to prove (without the aid of a time machine, as with so many other things!) - but that's my $0.02 on the issue, anyway.

The movie Robin Hood: Men in Tights gives an interesting hypothesis on how and why one particular word in the English language is a polyseme. At the end of the movie, the evil villain King John is cast down by his brother, King Richard. In order to make a mockery of the evil king, Richard proclaims: "henceforth all toilets in the land shall be known as Johns". Unfounded humour, or a plausible explanation? Who knows?

There are surely many more homonyms in the English language that, like 'mean' and 'felt' and 'shot', are also polysemes. If any of you have some words that you'd like to nominate as polysemes, feel free. The more bizarre the explanation, the better.

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