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Why Do English Words Have So Many Meanings

Every language has words with multiple meanings or multiple words that mean similar things, but some English words seem to take this to the extreme.

English is derived from multiple older Languages (like Latin, Anglo Saxon and Norse) It is a constantly developing language. Historically England and its language has been added to in both number and meanings of vocabulary by immigration, colonization and the adoption of English as a lingua Franca.

Take the word run, for example. This word has hundreds of meanings. Dictionary.com cites 148 meanings, but NPR notes over 600. Some meanings are slang or only used in specific contexts, but others are common in everyday language.

Idioms, multiple meanings, and slang can make learning English seem nearly impossible. So, how did we wind up with more than 100 ways to use run and other similar words? As for why these words have so many meanings, there is no simple answer. So lets look at the complicated one!

Fluidity of Language

The reason that Latin is a dead language is that it stopped moving and changing. The reason English gets a new word in the dictionary every year is that language adapts. Some words are invented, and others are changed. Words like buzzword, googling, and email are all words that have been added to the dictionary over the last decade or so.

These words didn’t exist thirty years ago. Email and googling are extensions of technology. However, sometimes the words just gain new meaning. Usage and acceptability often change the meanings of words.

Sometimes a new meaning is attached to an existing word. The word does not lose its original meaning, it just adopts the new one in addition to the traditional usage. A word like ”bad” or ”wicked” when I was young suddenly changed to mean the opposite of this traditional use.

Me as a (thinking i was cool) teenager. ”Last night was a wicked night out”

Friend answering ”yeah the nightclub was soooo bad!”

Parent listening in ‘‘Why do they keep going to these terrible places…”

Slang often finds it way into everyday language, lets look at other aspects in more detail below.

Usage of Slang in English Word meanings

Often words change because slang does. Dope, bad, far-out, rad, gig, cool, dig, fly, wicked, word, sweet, dough, and hot have all had slang and conventional meanings. They have been reappropriated by the generations to mean different things. This has caused more traditional words to then develop multiple meanings in English.

Likewise, when things are used negatively toward a people or group, they will sometimes reappropriate these words for their own. This is often done to minimize the sting of terrible words. Slang can have positive and negative effects on language usage.

English Steals Words From Other Languages

Historically English through immigration and colonization has become to be used as the worlds lingual franca ( used by the most second language speakers globally) It is not the worlds most spoken language, that is Mandarin, but it is the worlds largest second language.

This means that English is being used between friends of different languages, in business between countries, in classrooms to teach children to enter the globalized world. Its being used, changed and adapted all over every single minute. We have a rather lengthy article on the globalization of English here.

Now some of these adaptions come and go, but some stay, for multiple reasons. One example of a foreign word, from German actually, that English has co opted for use is schadenfreude. this is clearly a Germanic word. you can see the quote below for its meaning.

There is not an English word for this so the word has been absorbed into the English Language. Slowly at the moment. As it is used it will change as English speakers subtly change its pronunciation. It may even change spelling to make it easier to read for English users. It would not be surprising to see it turn into ”shadenfroid” or similar at some point.

How Many Words For Snow??

English is a thief. It claims to borrow from other languages but rarely does it give anything back. English takes from other languages to make a word its own. At times, this can be beneficial. There is no reason to have fifty words meaning snow.

However, Inuit tribes often need to describe several types of snow or snow landscapes to make their point known. While the belief they have fifty words for snow is maybe an exaggeration, what is not an exaggeration is that sometimes English writers will use a word from another language because it does not translate well. There is no English equivalent, so we use the German, French, or Inuit.

Additionally, sometimes we just don’t have a word yet, and we don’t see any reason to reinvent the wheel. English lexicons grow due to the adoption of a word from another culture or nation. We sometimes also create words from “mistaken” or “misspoken” words.

Origins Of Multiple Meanings in English Words

Sometimes we adopt these in our own homes, and sometimes they catch on as new words. One of these words is the slang “conversate” which is often used to mean converse. This word had no meaning before it became a new word. It is still considered non-standard, but it stemmed from people not knowing what the verb form of conversation might be.

This happens a lot. Smite is one of those words that people cannot seem to conjugate in English. Maui makes a joke about this in Moana from Disney, but countless people try to figure out the same conjugation daily.

You may be thinking that if we are inventing new words for these things, they aren’t multi-meaning words. However, what can happen is that we use what we best can. An example of this is the singular they. For centuries, “they” has been used in the singular to minimize word usage.

However, it is non-standard usage of the word. Now that the LGBTQ community is getting its voice heard, nonbinary and gender-fluid people need a pronoun. Zhe/ ze has been suggested but never really catches on. However, “they” seems to be the pronoun of choice.

The general meaning has been retained as a gender-neutral pronoun, but now it has moved from plural to singular, giving it a slightly different meaning. People reassign word meanings to fit what they can’t find the right word to describe.

Another origin-related issue with meaning is that when English borrows from one language, the root for a word may mean one thing. If it borrows from another language, a word spelled (and maybe even pronounced) similarly has a whole new meaning. Over time, these words often fuse into one spelling and pronunciation with multiple meanings.

Acronyms and Shortened Words In English

Sometimes, languages begin to shorten words or use acronyms instead of words. NASA isn’t a word, technically. It is an acronym. Likewise, plane is often used in reference to an airplane, but plane can also be the flat surface on which you stand, or even to travel by airplane.

Some of these uses are informal or slang words, and others are assigned meanings. However, one day people decided that “airplane” was just too long, and we should shorten it to plane. Also, textspeak is becoming more common for newly minted words.

Texting and English Language Development

While these are not words, ‘rents, boo, tea, and similar shortened words or phrases begin to look like other words. “Rents” is not referring to the payments people make to live in apartments or houses they do not own; boo is not a scary sound (unless you want to be single), and tea doesn’t specifically refer to the drink made from dried leaves.

What has happened is “parents” has been shortened to ‘rents, boo refers to a significant other, and tea is short for spilling the tea or telling secrets. The last one has more to unpack than just the altered meaning of a word, which we will not do here. The point is that the words have been adopted to mean something different.

There are origins for why these things have been chosen, but the most important takeaway is that they now have a second or third meaning. Tea is an interesting consideration as well.

There are many tea types, and they do not all refer to the tea tree plant leaves being dried then steeped to make a drink any longer. It has taken on many meanings and now has a slang definition too.

Do Other Languages Have Multiple Meanings For Words?

The certainly do, and they also have slang, Appropriated words, and adpated words. I once stood next to a friend in line at a work cafetiera, she is Indian, and the helper behind the counter was Indian as well. So she started to talk to him in Gujarati

It was a long line of words when suddenly ”strawberry” suddenly appeared in there from nowhere. Turns out there is no Gujarati word for strawberry!

Similarly homophones exist in many languages. Here are 25 in French that are tricky and German has them as well! Im here in Hong Kong and the Chinese word for dog (gou) if pronounced incorrectly can be the number 9, and also lead to some embarrassing movements.

Final Thoughts

There are many reasons a word or phrase may have multiple meanings. The important thing is to realize that while one word often has multiple meanings, you do not always have to use that word. English has millions of words, and often, there are multiple words that mean the same thing.

For instance, a car might be called an auto, automobile, vehicle, or be more specific such as truck, dually, van, minivan, coupe, sedan, and much more. If you are unsure of one word’s meaning, see if there is another word that fits.

Websites for dictionaries, whether the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam Webster, or someone else, often offer users a thesaurus option to search for words with similar meanings.

Be careful of your choice, however. Agent, meaning employee of the FBI, is not the same thing as a real estate agent. You cannot substitute broker or investigator for both. Expand your vocabulary and your understanding of a language so that you may be more concise.

I have been a teacher of English for over 15 years, in that time i made hundreds and thousands of resources and learnt so much i think its worth sharing. Hopefully to help teachers and parents around the world.

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