english words with multiple meanings

From Fairs to Novels: 21 Everyday 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, a friend of mine in a mine and a man with a bow bowing to an audience.

Welcome to the Polysemy (when a single word or phrase has multiple meanings) Fair where nothing is what it seems, and words get crazy different meanings just for the sake of fun.

But before you come in, you have to tell me what homophones, homographs and homonyms are.

If you do not know what they are (or even if you do!), you had better read this post before you enter the Fair unprepared and get lost forever!

What Are Homophones, Homographs and Homonyms?

They may sound dangerous and creepy, but 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,” however weird that sentence might sound, 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.

Take the verb read as an example.

The infinitive is pronounced /ri:d/ (with a long i), but the past tense and the past participle are pronounced /red/, as in the color red. They are written in the exact same way, but their pronunciations are different.

Finally, we have homonyms. They are words that either sound or are spelled identically but have different meanings.

Homonyms can be homophones, homographs or both, so to make things easy for you, we will be calling this post’s words homonyms unless stated otherwise.

Every language has homonyms, and language learners tend to have a rough time when trying to learn them.

Let’s have a look at the title of this post: The fair boy at the fair is really fair.

If it 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? Keep reading!

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 if they are around and able to help you.

You could also encounter and experience homonyms in an interactive and immersive environment with FluentU.

How to Use FluentU’s Interactive Subtitles to Learn Homonyms

english words with multiple meanings

FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

One of its main features is its system of interactive subtitles. When you are watching a video, you can, at any moment, just click on a word and see what it means. But not only that!

When you click on a word, you will get an interactive flashcard that includes all the information you need about a word. You will be able to learn the grammar tidbits of the word, its different meanings in context and its pronunciation.

If this is still not enough for you, the flashcard will also give you sample sentences with audio and translations, as well as recommended videos where you can see the word in context.

This system is undoubtedly (without a doubt) the way to go if you want to know everything about a specific word and not worry about it afterward (later, in the future).

Give FluentU a free try and see how easy and pleasant learning homonyms can be if you use the right tools.

Now that you have all the info you need, you may enter the fair!

Get ready to immerse yourself in a carnival of multiple meanings.

From Fairs to Novels: 21 Everyday English Words with Multiple Meanings

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 master them in no time. So, let the fun begin!

1. Fair

As you have already seen in the introduction, this word can have different meanings depending on whether it is a noun or an adjective. You know its meaning as a noun, and you probably also know one of its meanings as an adjective, but I am sure you would have never thought a carnival and a hair/skin color were spelled the same in English.

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

The fair boy at the fair is very fair with his siblings.

Since her skin is so fair, she has to be careful when she goes in the sun.

2. Saw

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.

3. Fell

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.

4. Found

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.

5. Bow

Bow is a word that can have several different meanings. It is 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.

6. Crane

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 observe (see) a crane here. There is no water around.

7. Date

This is an easy one.

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 is more!

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.

8. Minute

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/.

Meaning #1: a unit of time equal to 60 seconds

We have been waiting for 20 minutes.

Meaning #2: always in the plural (minutes), 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.

9. Second

If you are interested in etymology (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 am tired. Let’s go home.

I will second that.

10. Type

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. It all depends on the meaning of type you are referring to.

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.

11. Nail

Every time I hear the word nail, I think about the program “Nailed it!,” which I really recommend you watch 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!

12. Bark

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.

13. Mine

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, but you will after you have a look at the following meanings of the word mine.

Meaning #1: that which belongs to me

I like to mine in this mine because it is mine.

The blue bike is mine.

Meaning #2: a tunnel from which minerals are taken

I like to mine in this mine because it is mine.

He works in a gold mine.

Meaning #3: to mine, to dig a mine or to take away from a mine

I like to mine in this mine because it is mine.

She likes to mine for crystals.

14. Season

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.

15. Bat

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!

Notice how, similarly 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

I am afraid of bats.

16. Row

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.

17. Water

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.

18. Boot

Some of us know 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.

19. Club

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 already.

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.

They are opening a new dance club near your house 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 got 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 bedroom.

20. Key

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 keys.

Meaning #2: something that is necessary to do or achieve something

The key to learning English is practicing 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.

21. Novel

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!

My advice is that you learn all the different meanings of a word at once when you are acquiring (learning) new vocabulary (or expanding your word bank).

If a word is very polysemic, at least learn its main meanings. This will save you time when you come across that word again in the future.

As you have been able to see in this post, by learning just one of the meanings of a word you are leaving a lot of information behind. In order to avoid that, one of the best solutions is to spend a little more time with each word you learn.

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.

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