Sometimes I wonder why I (more than occasionally) read Language Log. In a lengthy post ostensibly on the word “draft,” Mark Liberman offers a memorable simile for people who like etymology.
[H]umans who love to explore etymology are like dogs avidly smelling the crap that other dogs have rubbed into their fur.
By way of explanation, he quotes Tom Davis’s book Why Dogs Do That:
There are couple of theories, by no means mutually exclusive, that explain why dogs take such obvious and unabashed delight in rolling in stuff that makes us gag: excrement, carrion (the older and fouler, the better), anything and everything that is rotten, putrid and deliquescent. And they don’t just roll in it; wriggling joyfully on their backs, they do their damnedest to smear it around and rub it in. The specific hypothesis suggest that dogs roll in stinky stuff to mask their own scent, and thus gain an edge over prey species […] (Contemporary human deer hunters do much the same thing when dousing their clothing with various bottled scents.)
The other theory, more general in application, holds that it’s a way for a dog to tell other dogs where they’ve been and what they found there. A dog streaked with excrescence is viewed by his brethren as a storyteller, and canine society hold storytellers in high esteem.
Much as I find Liberman’s simile, um, interesting, I think he runs far afield of the essential point about polysemy — the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase — in language. He begins by wondering if, as Geoff Pullum says, languages love multiple meanings like a dog rolling around in fresh grass. But then he gets lost, well, maybe like a dog who rolls around in mud or feces, shifting from a discussion of the preoccupations of language to the preoccupations of etymologists.
The pleasure of etymologists in relishing ambiguity is pretty carnal and passionate. Language, however, is dispassionate regarding polysemy.
From a cultural evolutionary perspective, polysemy varies from time to time, place to place…and it is not altogether clear whether it is an evolutionary necessity or artifact.
If we spiritual evolutionaries are correct in our belief that language is evolving into greater degrees of congruity and uniformity with underlying subtle principles, then polysemy may increasingly fade as it becomes less efficient or useful for the sorts of communication becoming increasingly important in the 21st century and beyond. I can’t say for sure if decreasing polysemy is an evolutionary by-product, but it would at the very least be a worthy subject of linguistic research.
In that case, languages embrace multiple meanings according to their usefulness at any given stage in evolution. Languages love to be helpful. They hold multiple meanings like a dog clutches a Frisbee in her teeth, gripping them so long as it is fun and stimulating…but eventually the stress becomes exhausting.