21 English Words with Multiple Meanings
Once upon a time, there was a fair boy at the fair, and he was really fair!
There was also a bat flying around a bat and a man with a bow bowing to an audience.
Welcome to the Polysemy (when a single word or phrase has multiple meanings) Fair. Nothing is what it seems, and words get crazy different meanings just for the sake of fun.
So let’s review homophones, homographs and homonyms, plus 21 English words with multiple meanings, before you enter the Fair unprepared and get lost forever!
- What Are Homophones, Homographs and Homonyms?
- Common English Homonyms
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
What Are Homophones, Homographs and Homonyms?
Homophones, homographs and homonyms are part of our daily life, regardless of what your mother language is.
Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings.
When you say “I have only one eye,” the words I and eye sound exactly the same, but they obviously have different meanings.
The same happens with words such as break and brake, here and hear or hour and our, just to give you a few examples.
On the other hand, homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations.
Think about the verb read.
The infinitive is pronounced /rEEd/ (with a long e), but the past tense and the past participle are pronounced /red/, like the color red. They are written in the exact same way, but their pronunciations are different.
And lastly, we have homonyms—words that either sound or are spelled identically but have different meanings.
Homonyms can be homophones, homographs or both. To make things easy for you, we will be calling this post’s words homonyms unless stated otherwise.
There are several methods to learn the different meanings of words. You can look them up (search) in a dictionary, check an online translator or even ask a friend to help you.
Common English Homonyms
The following 21 words are common English words that have different meanings and/or pronunciations. They can be a little tricky sometimes, but thanks to this post, you will be able to understand them in no time. So, let the fun begin!
Let’s go back to the first sentence of this post: The fair boy at the fair is really fair.
If this is the first time you have seen the word fair, you are probably having a language heart attack right now. If you have seen this word before, though, you most likely know its meaning as a noun (funfair, carnival). But what about the other two?
Well, this word can have different meanings depending on whether it is a noun or an adjective. Take a look at all three meanings of the word below.
Meaning #1: a carnival; a public event where there are games, competitions, rides and entertainment
Also, in the United States, a fair is an event where farm products and animals are shown and judged.
The boy showed his horse and his two pigs at the state fair.
Meaning #2: treating someone right or in a way that does not favor other people
The boy at the fair is very fair with his siblings when they play games together.
Meaning #3: having light skin and/or hair
Since her skin is so fair, she has to be careful when she goes in the sun.
The fair boy at the fair is very fair with his siblings.
You probably know this word as the past tense of the verb to see, but did you know it can also be a tool and the infinitive of another verb?
Saw comes from the Old English word saga (to cut), but also from the Middle English word sawen (knife), hence its different meanings nowadays.
Meaning #1: a device or tool with sharp teeth, typically made of metal
He used a saw to cut the branch of the tree.
Meaning #2: to saw, to cut with a saw
He is going to saw the tree down with a saw.
Meaning #3: past tense of the verb to see
I saw the saw he used to saw the tree down.
Now this one’s tricky. A lot of my beginner students think this is the past tense of to feel, but actually it is the past tense of the verb to fall.
What not many non-native speakers know is that it can also be the infinitive form of a different verb, and also a formal adjective!
Meaning 1: past tense of the verb to fall
The girl fell on the floor and started crying.
Meaning #2: to fell, to knock or cut down, to cause to fall
He used an ax to fell the tree.
Meaning #3: (formal) fierce, cruel, savage
He was imprisoned by his fell enemy.
This word is another example of the past tense of a verb that is also the infinitive of a different verb.
Meaning #1: past tense and past participle of the verb to find (to come upon by chance, to locate)
I found a lot of old books in the attic yesterday.
Meaning #2: to found, to set up or establish, to base on, to provide a basis for
We want to found a new translation company.
Bow is a word that can have several different meanings. It is also a homograph because the pronunciation is slightly different between the noun and verb form.
As a noun, for example, you can wear one around your neck or use one to attack someone. As a verb, you can use it to show respect.
Don’t you love English?
Meaning #1: to bow, to bend forward at the neck or waist in order to greet someone or show respect
We must all bow before the queen.
Meaning #2: a knot made by tying a ribbon into two or more loops, often referred to as bow tie
He is wearing a green bow tie.
Meaning #3: a weapon used for shooting arrows
The hunter had a bow and many arrows.
I still remember when I learned this word myself. I imagined a giant machine that transformed into a bird. I have never forgotten this word!
Meaning #1: a big machine with a long arm used by builders to lift or move big objects
I think we are going to need a crane to lift that statue.
Meaning #2: a tall bird that has a long neck and long legs; it lives near water
It is impossible to see a crane here. There is no water around.
This is a very common word.
If you are a romantic person, this word will probably make you think of special occasions with a partner. If time is important for you, you will see a date as a day on a calendar.
Both options are correct, but there are still more meanings!
Meaning #1: a specific day of a month or year
What is the date today?
Meaning #2: a situation where two people who have or want to have a romantic relationship do some activity together
I would love to go on a date with you.
Meaning #3: the person you go on a date with
Mary is my date for tonight.
Meaning #4: to date someone, to do some kind of activity with a person you have or want to have a romantic relationship with
Mary and I are dating.
Meaning #5: to date something, to write the date on something
Please, do not forget to sign and date your exam.
Here we have a homograph. Minute is pronounced /minit/ when it refers to time.
It can also refer to size, in which case it is pronounced /mai’niut/. In meaning #3, click on the link and play the example labeled “minute [Adjective]” to hear the proper pronunciation.
Meaning #1: a unit of time equal to 60 seconds
We have been waiting for 20 minutes.
Meaning #2: (always plural) the official record of everything that is said and done during a meeting
Ms. Roche will be taking the minutes during the meeting.
Meaning #3: an adjective meaning tiny, very small
With this new device, we are able to see even the most minute particles.
If you are interested in etymology (the study of words), you will like this word!
Second has two main meanings, one referring to time and one referring to something or someone coming after first. I was surprised to find out both these meanings come from the same Latin word, secundus (following, next in time or order).
Apart from being a noun, second can also be a verb. In this case, the origin of the word is from the Latin word secundare (to assist, to make favorable).
Meaning #1: occupies the second position in a series, importance or rank
Soup is my second choice.
Meaning #2: (always plural) another serving of food taken after you have finished the first one
Do you want seconds?
Meaning #3: a unit of time equal to 1/60 of a minute
It took him 35 seconds to open the box.
Meaning #4: to second, to approve something, to agree with somebody
I second that; I also want to go home now.
They say that everyone has a type, but what exactly does that mean?
You can type in different kinds of types, enjoy different types of food and have different types in reference to people.
Meaning #1: a particular kind of thing or person
I do not like this type of food. It is too greasy.
Meaning #2: the kind of person someone likes
Bea is totally my type.
Meaning #3: the different kinds of printed letters
Please, do not use the italic type. Use bold.
Meaning #4: to type, to write with a typewriter or a computer keyboard
I can type 200 words per minute.
Every time I hear the word nail, I think about the program “Nailed it!,” which I really recommend if you love cooking and comedy and you want to listen to some American English to improve your language skills.
Meaning #1: a piece of metal that is sharp at one end and flat at the other, usually used to attach things to wood
I used the biggest nail I had to hang the picture frame.
Meaning #2: the hard covering at the end of our fingers and toes
Sarah gets her nails painted every Tuesday.
Meaning #3: to nail, to attach something with a nail
We need to nail those boards.
Meaning #4: (slang) to nail, to do something perfectly or in an impressive way
I nailed the final test. I am so proud of myself!
What do dogs and trees have in common? Dogs bark and trees have bark!
I find it very interesting that a tree’s bark and to bark come from different origin words.
The hard covering of plants probably comes from the Old Norse word börkr (bark, likely related to the word birch). The sound dogs make comes from the Old English word beorcan (to bark, to utter an abrupt, explosive cry).
Meaning #1: the outer covering of a tree
Some types of bark are very beautiful.
Meaning #2: the loud sound made by a dog
His dog gave a very loud bark.
Meaning #3: to bark (from a dog or a person), to make a short loud sound
If her dog does not stop barking, I will call the police.
Stop barking at me and try to calm down.
If I tell you “I like to mine in this mine because it is mine,” you may or may not understand what I am saying.
You will after you have a look at the following meanings of the word mine, though—in that example, it’s meaning #3, then #2 and then #1!
Meaning #1: that which belongs to me
The blue bike is mine.
Meaning #2: a tunnel from which minerals are taken
He works in a gold mine.
Meaning #3: to mine, to dig a mine or to take away from a mine
She likes to mine for crystals.
I like to mine in this mine because it is mine.
Even though the two main meanings of the word season do not seem to be related, they have an almost common ancestor, and once you understand its origin, it totally makes sense.
Season comes from the Old French word seison (a period of the year, proper time). To season comes from the Old French word assaisoner (to ripen, to improve the flavor of).
These two Old French words are related. When the time was right (seison), fruits and vegetables grew ripe (assaisoner), which made them more palatable (tasty). Neat!
Meaning #1: one of the four periods into which the year is divided; a particular period of time during the year.
My favorite season is winter.
It is flu season.
Meaning #2: to season, to add salt, pepper or other spices to give something more flavor
Season to taste and serve hot.
Did you know that Batman got his name from an animal? Have you ever seen Batman use a bat to bat someone? No, not the animal, the stick!
Just like to nail with a nail, you can say to bat with a bat. Do you see a pattern already?
Meaning #1: a long rounded stick used to hit a ball
Mendoza gave me his baseball bat.
Meaning #2: to hit with a bat
I want to bat next.
Meaning #3: an animal with wings and a furry body that comes out at night
I am afraid of bats.
The main meaning of this word is a line of people or things that are next to each other.
Additionally, row can also be a verb that means to move a boat through the water with the use of oars.
Meaning #1: a straight line of people or things that are next to each other; a row of seats (in a theater or stadium).
We are going to arrange the desks in five rows of six desks each.
Meaning #2: to row, to move a boat through water by using oars
I like to row my boat in the calm lake.
I love looking at my students’ faces when I tell them that water can be a verb.
Indeed, as it happens with many words in English, nouns can be used as verbs. In this case, the noun water, which we all know, can be used to mean to pour water on something, as on a plant, for example.
Meaning #1: a clear liquid with no color, smell or taste that falls from clouds in the form of rain, forms seas and lakes and is used for drinking, bathing, washing, etc.
I love drinking water in the morning.
Meaning #2: to water, to pour water on something; to give an animal water to drink
Please, water my plants while I am in Spain.
Some of us know that the verb to boot means to start a computer.
British people call the trunk of a car a boot, and Americans often use this word when talking about cowboy boots.
But there is more you can learn about this word.
Meaning #1: a covering for the foot normally made of leather or rubber
I cannot find my winter boots anywhere.
Meaning #2: the trunk of a car
They found the missing money in the boot of his car.
Meaning #3: to boot, to force to leave a place; to fire
They booted James yesterday!
Meaning #4: to boot, to lock a Denver boot onto the wheel of a car so that it cannot move
The parking attendant booted my car.
Club has several meanings, ranging from a group of people who participate in a specific activity to a place where you can listen to music, eat some food and drink alcohol.
Other meanings include a metal stick used in golf, a wooden stick used as a weapon and even a suit in a deck of cards! That is polysemy at its finest!
Meaning #1: a group of people who meet to participate in an activity
The chess club has 200 members.
Meaning #2: the place where members of a club meet
I will meet you in front of the chess club at 7 p.m.
Meaning #3: a business that provides entertainment, music, food, drinks, etc.
The new dance club will open next weekend.
Meaning #4: a metal stick used for hitting a golf ball
My daughter is using my golf clubs. Can I borrow yours?
Meaning #5: a heavy wooden stick that is used as a weapon
One of the attackers hit me with a club.
Meaning #6: (plural) one of the suits in a deck of playing cards
I have the ten of clubs.
Meaning #7: to club, to hit a person or an animal with a stick or object
He clubbed the poisonous snake in his backyard.
What if I told you that the main definition of the word key is just one of over a dozen?
Do not panic, I will not make you learn all the different meanings of key, but it would be awesome if you learned the main ones.
Meaning #1: a device you use to open a lock or start a car
I think I have lost my car key.
Meaning #2: something that is necessary to do or achieve something
The key to learning English is to practice every day.
Meaning #3: any of the buttons of a typewriter or computer
I love typing without looking at the keys.
Meaning #4: used as an adjective to mean extremely important
He is a key worker in our company.
Meaning #5: (informal) to key, to have the most important part in something
Marcus keyed the victory for the Eagles.
We normally think of books when we hear the word novel, but novel can also be used as an adjective to mean that something is new and different.
Meaning #1: a long written story, normally dealing with imaginary people and events
I have published five novels so far.
Meaning #2: new and different from what has been known before
His novel approach to the problem helped us find a solution.
Phew! There you have it, 21 everyday English words with multiple meanings!
Learning just one of the meanings of a word means you are leaving a lot of information behind.
To avoid that, one of the best solutions is to spend a little more time with each word you learn, and to learn a word’s most common meanings.
That’s the key to having a good vocabulary, after all!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)