Language Log asks you again: another quiz

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What do loads, accumulations, obligations, and (idiomatic) kicks have in common with management, custody, people in care, sets of instructions, expenditures, liabilities, prices, loan records, and allegations?

You know I hate it when everyone shouts at once. Form an orderly line and enter your answers below. Reload in a different window before submitting to make sure somebody didn't just give the answer you were going to give: Language Log quizzes tend to get answers submitted within about nine minutes of appearance.

OK, as you see, it took less than half an hour on a slow Sunday night for someone to spot that the astonishingly polysemous noun charge bears all of the above senses, and Tim Silverman is the winner, beating catsidhe by less than a minute. You can look the word up on Webster's here. A charge may be the load of explosive in a bullet or shell or an accumulation of electricity or some metaphorically similar force (a poem can carry an emotional charge); a charge may be placed on you in the sense of an obligation or duty; you can get a charge out of doing something exciting; being in charge of something means managing it and being in someone's charge is being in their custody; if you are the guardian of some young people they are described as your charges; the judge gives a charge to a jury; you can notice illicit charges on your credit card bill; there may be a charge for some service; a library has a charge on a book when its records show that it has been lent out; and if you commit a crime you may find a criminal charge brought against you.

How the hell do we manage with a word that has this many meanings?
I didn't even get to all its senses; I was going to include "onrushing military assault, especially of infantry or cavalry", but I simply forgot that one. There are several others that could have been added. And then a whole lot more meanings for the related verb.

I really don't do lexical semantics, but I really am struck by the astonishing degree of polysemy in English: words that have multiple meanings, sometimes recognizably if distantly related (charge has an etymology going back to the same Latin root as the word car), but sometimes apparently a thousand miles away from each other conceptually. Prescriptivists get so red-faced furious about the idea that a word might develop a new meaning or function (that disinterested might pick up a second meaning "bored" alongside "unbiased", for example); but they never say a word about most of the cases of rampant polysemy in the dictionary.

Charge is not just ambiguous, having two separable meanings; it is multifariously, outrageously, promiscuously polysemous. What it suggests is that human languages do not strive to avoid ambiguity. They do not try to align words with meanings one to one. It follows (since things don't fall apart just because we have thousands of words like charge) they are not in danger of anarchy when a new word sense evolves. People don't just tolerate languages with multiply polysemous words, they seem to love them; they thrive on multiplicity of meaning. There are thousands of examples that show this. It is only the prescriptivist thickheads who cannot see what that means…

But wait a minute; I seem to have said some of this before.


  1. Tim Silverman said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 5:49 pm


  2. catsidhe said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 5:50 pm


  3. nacbrie said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

    @Tim Silverman: I agree, but some of the synonyms seem unwieldy – 'loan record', for example, which sort of sounds like a large book in which loans are recorded.

  4. Bec said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 6:19 pm


  5. catsidhe said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

    No, really, ‘charge’

    One can ‘charge your glass’, build up a static charge, be charged with a duty, get a charge from an activity, be in charge, charge someone with an offence, have someone as a charge, have charges to do something, have a charge on a bill or bank account, or have a list of charges in the police station.

    …. and ‘charge’ is now a silly-sounding collection of syllables, divorced of meaning. So it goes.

  6. Liz Peña said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

    I was gonna say "tax" but, maybe that's because it's what I'm working on. "Charge" works better.

  7. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

    @catsidhe: A collection with just one element, presumably? :)

  8. Chargone said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 10:08 pm

    pretty sure charge also means 'the act of rushing toward the enemy or opposition, usually with the intent to engage them in a melee and/or break through their line'

    don't think there's another word for that one at the tactical level yet :D

    not that it happens much anymore 'cept in sports, of course.

    does look like charge would be the answer to the question though :D

  9. Kenny Easwaran said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

    I don't see the use of the word "charge" that means "kicks".

  10. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 10:54 pm

    @Kenny: idiomatically. Kicks as in thrills, "get a kick out of", etc.

  11. marie-lucie said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 10:54 pm

    "I get a kick out lt it" = "I get a charge out of it" ?

  12. catsidhe said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 11:08 pm

    @Sridhar: that's what I get for posting before my second coffee of the day…

  13. Will said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 12:04 am

    Maybe it's because my second cup of coffee has already worn off for the day, but I still don't see the connection between idiomatic kicks and charges.

  14. mgh said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 12:18 am

    not to mention electrons

  15. catsidhe said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 12:22 am

    I think "charge" == "(adrenaline) rush", as in "I get a charge out of BASE jumping". It's a usage I've seen, but it's not one I'm likely to use. Not least because I tend to avoid the sort of activities to which it tends to apply.

  16. Will said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 12:55 am

    Okay, that explains why I didn't get it. I've never seen that usage.

    [This illustrates my underlying point very nicely. How could Will possibly have guessed this meaning from the others? How do people do such guessing in general? How to they remember the large arrays of meanings associated with the words for which they succeed in guessing some of the meanings? The surprise is not that Will has (as far as he can recollect) never seen or heard an instance of this meaning of the word; it's why most of us aren't in the same position nearly all the time, constantly baffled by the question of what meanings are intended by a large proportion of the word uses we encounter. —GKP]

  17. JimG said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 1:59 am

    Aren't loads, accumulations, obligations, and kicks terms for fees and costs imposed by banks, lenders, and other creditors (THERE's another word that deserves attention)? Coincidentally, I was thinking just yesterday about the verbing of the word "loan," used instead of a form of "lend."

  18. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 3:49 am

    OK, I've now posted the rest of my text in the post above. Time to reload the page. I hope my little competition didn't get my Language Log charges over-excited; I don't want to lose control of those in my charge. The problem is that there is no charge for placing a comment on Language Log. Some people post highly charged comments simply because they get a charge out of it . . .

    But anyway. The real point of all this is that I am frequently staggered by the degree of polysemy in simple words that we use every day. I just can't see how people work with a language like this (not that English is at all unique in this regard).

  19. marie-lucie said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 10:00 am

    Polysemy arises out of concrete or metaphorical extensions of an original meaning through use of a word in different contexts. The meaning of "charge" in each of the above cases is unambiguous. People do not learn new meanings by memorizing all the senses given in a dictionary: they learn them case by case, by hearing or reading them in context. Even if they may be puzzled by a new meaning ("get a charge" rather than "a kick" out of something), if they hear or read the phrase in context a few times they will understand it, and may find themselves using it later.

  20. Dan T. said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    "Check" is another word with a bewildering variety of meanings, all deriving ultimately (according to an etymology I remember reading somewhere once) from the use in chess to announce that you have placed the opponent's king under attack. That got generalized to "a halt in progress" which allowed it to take on meanings like "an inspection", and then to describe receipts such as a coat check, bills like in a restaurant, and financial documents with which you might pay a charge. ("Cheque" in British usage.) Then there's the Chancellor of the Exchequer to manage a government's use of such payments. Not to mention a "check mark" when "checking off" things on to-do lists, or checkerboard-style "check" patterns on clothing (or the "Go Go Checks" DC Comics used for a while on the covers of its comics in the hip, mod '60s).

  21. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    My favourite example of a polysemous word has always been "bolt", but I think "charge" beats it, I regret to say. Bolt from the blue, bolt on the door, bolt of cloth, the horse bolted, you bolt your food, etc., etc.

  22. Troy S. said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    I seem to remember reading a factoid somewhere (maybe the Guinness Book) that "set" is the most polysemous word in English. Is that a quickly demonstrably false claim?

  23. Dan T. said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    "Set" was supposedly the word that gave the editor of the original Oxford English Dictionary the most difficulty.

  24. cs said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    I think you should do "scale" next.

  25. Older said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    At the college I attended (very very many years ago), a clipping was posted in the mailroom (way before the internet). The headline was "Whale Violations Charged", and a handwritten note on the margin read "Large Charge".

  26. Andrew said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

    Had I seen this quiz (or any other like it) in time to be a contestant, I would have immediately pasted the first paragraph into Onelook's "Reverse Dictionary" feature. Sure enough, "charge" is the second option. It would take only a moment to dismiss the curious (but kind of appropriate) first option, "search engine", and win Geoffrey's prize, which I take to have been a lifetime subscription to LL.

    The Reverse Dictionary is a boon to us all. If there are people out there who don't know it, check it out.

  27. Army1987 said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 7:28 am

    A more interesting phenomenon is when non-cognate words in different languages come to have the same polysemy. "Field" has a lot of meanings, but I can't think of a sentence where in Italian it'd be translated as anything other than campo, even after reading the Wikipedia disambiguation page.

  28. Ken Grabach said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    Interesting point, and nice example of 'field' in English and 'campo' in Italian. I am not sufficiently fluent in Italian to know whether 'campo' would be used to describe which players the Azzuri would 'field' in the upcoming World Cup finals in South Africa. Would the sentence simply say that the players would be 'placed on the field'? Or would there be a more idiomatic phrase with a word other than 'campo' for the verb 'to field'?

  29. Robert said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    Italian seems to be the other language that uses field for the algebraic structure (French and German both call it a body).

  30. Comwave said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 3:09 am

    In "and Tim Silverman is the winner, beating catsidhe by less than a minute," I thought catsidhe is a regular word that I'd never met before and googled the word.

    This may sound stupid, but I'm really wondering, "Without context, would it be easy and clear to native eyes that catsidhe is a name?

  31. Army1987 said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 11:18 am

    It's a long time since I last watched a football match, but the only obvious way to say that I can think of, other than mettere in campo, is far giocare ("make/let/have [them] play").
    As for the algebraic structures, IIRC, Italian has both corpo (lit. "body") for the non-commutative one and campo for the commutative one.

  32. Army1987 said,

    March 7, 2010 @ 9:44 am

    (Actually, there *is* a one-word translation of "to field" in that context: schierare (literally "to array".)

  33. ASG said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

    Army1987, has some cognate of "field" become a verb in Italian as well? Because in English you can "field a question," which is a very specific use of the word I've always liked.

    On the subject of verbing nouns: I seem to remember that, sometime in the past few months, this blog posted a really nice list of nouns that have long since become well-accepted and oft-used verbs in English. I couldn't find that post after hours (well, an hour) of vigorous trawling through the archives.

    I ask because I have friends who are always complaining about the "modern" verbification of nouns (such as "to podium," the LL entry about which I did find) and I always wanted to respond with a list of noun-sourced verbs that are so old and so well-established in English that it would silence their complaints. Can someone who has better tag-fu than I direct me to the list? On my own I came up with "season" and "spice." I guess I was hungry at the time.

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