In the first session of Gather’s winter Bible study, “Multiple meanings: Learning from different interpretations,” author Mark Allan Powell introduces us to the term “polyvalence,” which, he writes, is the “technical term for multiple meanings.”

A careful Gather reader wondered why this term–which is also used in the field of chemistry to describe molecules with more than one charge–was used rather than a word like “polysemous,” a word Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as being used to describe a word “having multiple meanings.”

Here’s is Mark Allan Powell’s explanation of this theological term and how it is used in the Winter 2018 Bible study:

“Polyvalence” is the term that literary critics chose to describe the phenomenon of multiple meanings in literature.

[Literary critics] began using [polyvalence] in the late 20th century, although it didn’t really catch on until the early 21st century. They may not have known that this term was already used in science to describe the movements of electrons.

They also didn’t seem to know or care that the word “polysemous” was used by grammarians to describe words that have more than one meaning. For example, the word “duck” [is polysemous because it] can refer to an animal or to the action of stooping down to avoid being hit by something. … Grammarians say a word is polysemous when it means two completely different things. The point [with the use of polysemous] is not that people understand a word differently because of their different experiences, but that a word itself means different things in different contexts.

[For literary critics] the concept of polyvalence is different. Literary critics use polyvalence to refer to the way stories are understood or interpreted by people who have had different experiences.

You may or may not be interested in the more technical aspects of this distinction. In short, grammarians would say a word is polysemous when authors use the same word with different intended meanings. So one author intends her readers to think of an animal when she uses the word “duck.” Another author uses the word and intends his readers to picture someone stooping down to avoid being hit. But literary critics would say a story is polyvalent because readers interpret or understand it differently. And whatever an author might have intended, readers will inevitably understand a story in different ways.

Do you have a question about the “Multiple meanings: Learning from different interpretations” Bible study? Send your question to [email protected], and you might find your question answered here on our website.