Word meaning is fluid and shaped by expectations. Just as a fluid takes the shape of its container, so too the context of a word forms a container shaping the word meaning. To take a simple example, consider a word you know well, “Starbucks”, and look at its meaning in these two sentences: “I worked at Starbucks last year” and “I drank my Starbucks”.

In the first sentence, “I worked at __” leaves a place-of-work shaped hole and in the second “I drank ___” leaves a drink shaped hole, and the word Starbucks happily morphs into either shape quite effortlessly. Words thus have an unlimited number of meanings and no dictionary can hope to capture all these meanings

This short note is a brief exploration of some container shapes.

Action Shaped Holes

In concerned with creativity of meaning, we have seen a long list of examples where a noun, when used as a verb, really just means “do that which you do with that noun”, and so the phrase “to bed” just means that which you do on a bed. The “to __” sets up an action shaped hole that can be filled with an associated action.

As I pointed out there, there are very many different “associated actions”. Consider the noun “time”. What can we do with it? Well, we can measure a duration, and we see that sense in the sentence “I timed myself when I ran the lap”. Another thing we can do with time is pick a good time, and this sense is seen in “Don’t try to time the market”.

Noun Shaped Holes

Just as “to __” is action-shaped, “the __” is a noun-shaped hole and casts its contents into a thing. The word “good” is an adjective, describing a property: good book, good wine, good time. But when shoved into the noun-shaped hole, it happily becomes persons (who are good), as we see happen in the movie title “The good, the bad, and the ugly”, in the tv-show title “the bold and the beautiful” and in the phrase “the meek shall inherit the earth”.

Arbitrary Shapes

The shape of the hole can be virtually any category: a drink, a place of work, a government (e.g., “Washington” fills such as hole in “__ sent an ambassador to France”), a scandal (e.g., “sharpie” fills a part-word hole in “__gate”)

The possibilities are limitless, and this is the rich domain of metonymy. “Mental Spaces” (explored in the book with that name by Gilles Fauconnier) provide many delightful examples of how the meaning of a word can be stretched quite drastically. When one waiter says to another, “The Cheese Sandwich left without paying”, the “Cheese sandwich” fills a customer-shaped hole and is understood as such. The hearer may have never heard this usage before, but if they guess that “cheese sandwich” must refer to a customer (and a customer who was in the restaurant just now), the mental process of identifying precisely the person meant is straightforward.

Feature, not Bug

This ambiguity and shape shifting is a nightmare for someone wanting to have language mean only what they mean and be precise and unambiguous. It also makes the work of writing computer programs that understand language many times harder. This is also leads to wild and bogus claims such as “Sanskrit is great for computer programming because there you say exactly what you mean and the parsing is obvious”.

But I repeat: this is a feature. Our world is huge and changing and we need an unpredictable and ever expanding set of meanings, and we can’t just keep inventing new words (that would make the language impossible to learn). We need a way to make do with the words we have (occasionally expanding with neologisms, but not expanding a hundred-fold), and this fluidity is just what the doctor ordered.

I do unsupervised concept discovery at Pinterest (and previously at Google). Twitter: @amahabal