Is there a technical term in rhetoric for playing on different senses of the same word in a brief text as shown below? Truncated quotation follows:

"The land is the source or material whence wealth is drawn ... The land produces grass, roots, grains, flax, cotton, hemp, shrubs and woods of many kinds with their fruits, barks, and foliage, such as those of the mulberry trees for silkworms; it produces mines and minerals. The work of man makes wealth out of all that. The rivers and seas provide fish .... But these seas and rivers belong to the adjacent lands."

The first instance of "land" is generic. The second refers to "land" in the sense of "earth" as "soil" or "dirt". Then we have a synecdoche whereby rivers and seas are "land," now in the sense of the "earth" as the "world," and finally we have "land" in the sense of "nation" which asserts rights over the adjacent waters.

It has been decades since I studied classical rhetoric and figures of speech.

  • Wouldn't you call it all imagery? Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 20:50
  • No. That does not seem to answer the question I was trying to ask. I agree that the quoted passage uses imagery, but I was looking for a technical term that focuses on the contrasted use of a single word in different senses, in this case the word "land." Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 20:34
  • You may be thinking of syllepsis, a zeugma where a verb or adjective is applied to more than one noun in conflicting or contrasting senses: the price sank, and his spirits, or the palace where Queen Anne Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea. Your passage is rather more leisurely about the shift, however, and I don't perceive any "play" in it.
    – choster
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 23:00

1 Answer 1


polysemy n (Linguistics) the existence of several meanings in a single word. from New Latin polysēmia, from Greek polusēmos having many meanings,
from poly- + sēma a sign] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/polysemy

  • Well that word describes the fact of multiple meanings, but does not necessarily preclude a term that describes using such a word in close succession in different senses. In any case, thank you. If worse comes to worst, I can always make up "polysemous word play" or use "polysemy" itself as a kind of synecdoche. Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 20:38

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