In Spanish, like in other languages, there are linguistically identical words, which have a single origin but different nuances, and retain the same morphological and syntagmatic function.
This is what we call polysemy. This term comes from Greek ‘polusemous’ [poly- (many) + sema (sign)]
Some examples of such words are:
• “Sirena” (from Latin ‘siren’), which may refer to ‘mermaid’ or to ‘siren’ (a device for making a loud warning noise)
• “Banco” (from old Fr. ‘bank’): which might mean ‘bench’ (a kind of seat), a shoal fish, or a bank ...
• “Cup” (from Lat. ‘Cuppa’): either a drinking glass or the top of a tree ...
• “Sierra” (from Lat. ‘Serra’).: a ‘saw’ (a tool for cutting wood), but also a mountain ‘range’ ...
• “Cola” (from Vulgar Lat. ‘Coda’): may mean ‘tail’, the rear end of something, or a ‘queue’ (people standing in line)
There are also polysemic words that vary in meaning depending on their gender, for example:
• El capital (money) -- La capital (city)
• El cura (the priest) – La cura (the cure)
• El cometa (comet) – La cometa (kite)
Another phenomenon is called homonymy. A homonym is a word that is written and pronounced the same way as another, but which has a different meaning.
A clear example is the Spanish word 'vino':
- 'Vino': simple past form of the verb ‘venir’ (he/she/it came) or ‘wine’ (a drink). This is a case of a homonym, not a polysemy, since the verb 'vino' comes from the Latin verb "venit", while “vino” ('wine') comes from Latin "vinum".
Homonyms include two types of words: homographs and homophones.
• Homographs are homonyms and they share the same spelling, like 'vino'.
• Homophones are words with a different spelling but the same sound, for example, ‘vaca’ ('cow') and ‘baca’ (a roof luggage rack)
The distinction between homonyms and polysemous words is not always simple. We must attend to the etymology of the word itself, because although in both cases the words are pronounced and spelled the same, in the case of polysemy the word has a single origin, while in homonymy the word comes from various sources.