Is there a name for a pair of words or phrase that can have a double meaning? I was thinking homophones, but I thought that homophones are only applied to single words (ie their, there, and they're).

The example:

  • The term "werewolf hunter" can have two meanings

    • A hunter who is also a Werewolf
    • A hunter who hunts werewolves
  • The term "English teacher" can have two meanings

    • A teacher who is English in race
    • A teacher who teaches English

Is there a specific term for this kind of phrase?

closed as off-topic by curiousdannii, NVZ, John Clifford, jimm101, Hellion Apr 18 '16 at 0:26

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  • 2
    You're reading more into the 'pair of words' of your example than is warranted; you even give a triplet as the second example. With compound premodifiers, the potential for confusion is well known and has been addressed here before. But 'English teacher' is ambiguous largely because of the polysemy (here, intercategorial) of the word(/s) 'English'. 'Werewolf hunter' would, as stated in your previous thread, be taken as meaning 'hunter of werewolves'. Any adjective / attributive noun has multiple possible senses. 'Crepuscular, can mean of or like twilight. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 19 '14 at 19:18
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it claims to address ambigous couplets whereas only the premodifier is displaying normal polysemy. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 19 '14 at 19:29
  • Another example I've discovered and like is 'toy factory'. Here, 'toy X' can mean 'toy manufactured to represent a genuine X' (a model) as in toy car, toy gun, toy dinosaur. But it can also mean 'X associated with the processing / production / distribution ... of toys' as in toy shop, toy department, toy factory. It's the first noun's polysemy that gives rise to potential ambiguity. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 20 '14 at 0:37
  • “Car transportation” can mean people (and animals) using cars for travel, or it can mean loading cars onto larger vehicles (e.g., trucks, trains, planes, and ships) in order to move the cars from Point A to Point B. This is strikingly parallel to “expect installation”, which can mean using the expect program to install other software, or it can mean tools/techniques for installing expect. … See also Robot Repair. – Scott Dec 23 '14 at 18:03
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    Possible duplicate of Ambiguous meaning - two nouns in a row – Scott Apr 14 '16 at 4:44

A word or phrase that has more than one related meaning or sense is a polyseme. You can read a fairly good overview of polysemy here.

However, your examples are somewhat different from those on the link I've provided. Your examples are, more specifically, about the potential confusion caused when we assemble two or more nouns into phrases. The relationship between those nouns can become unclear, though context usually works it out.


Double entendre might be what you're looking for. A double entendre is a phrase meant to mean two things. Double entendre can imply there's an innocent meaning and a dirty meaning, but you could still use it for "werewolf hunter," especially if you put it in a sentence where the whole sentence made sense with either meaning. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_entendre

If you're looking for something a bit less specific, you could just say it is an ambiguous phrase.

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