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June 2012

Marilyn Monroe’s “Lesson” on the Semantics of Dermatology

Arch Dermatol. 2012;148(6):739. doi:10.1001/archdermatol.2012.104

It's been 50 years since the tragic death of Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962). As a tribute to the legendary screen star, I draw your attention to one of her most popular films, “The Seven Year Itch.” Itch, in dermatology, describes a skin sensation that causes a desire to scratch. Another meaning of itch is having a restless craving for something, such as the urge for infidelity, as is portrayed in the movie.

When a word, such as itch, has 2 or more related meanings, it is called a polyseme. Polysemes differ from other homonyms, which are, by definition, words that sound the same but have different meanings. An example of such a homonym can be found in the trite pun, “Dermatologists tend to make rash decisions.” Rash in this case means to be imprudently hasty, and the word is semantically distinct from its dermatologic homonym, the skin rash.

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