Published: 10th April 2019
Is English difficult to learn? Here are some examples of words that have multiple meanings
The word ‘bark’ as a noun refers to the outer covering of a tree and as a verb it means the sound a dog makes
Why is English difficult to learn? Many learners say that it is because some words have multiple meanings and it is difficult to remember the meanings of the words and use them appropriately in various contexts. Another problem is that some words mean different things in different varieties of English.
For example, the word ‘rubber’, as a slang term, refers to a condom in American English whereas in other parts of the world it means a pencil eraser. Similarly, the word ‘bird’ refers to an animal with feathers in all varieties of English but in the UK, it also refers to a young female. The most complex words in English are mono-syllabic.
Let’s look at some of the monosyllabic words: set, take, and give. These words have over fifty meanings and even advanced learners of English are not familiar with the meanings. Recently, I asked a group of a college students with a moderate level of proficiency in English to write the different meanings of the words bark, nail, jam, pool, mine, bolt, season, novel, current, hatch, and harbor. Most learners could give only the primary meanings of the words.
The word ‘bark’ as a noun refers to the outer covering of a tree and as a verb it means the sound a dog makes. Look at the word ‘jam’. It has multiple meanings as a noun and as a verb. As a noun it refers to a thick sweet food that is made by boiling fruits mixed with sugar and it also refers to a crowded mass that blocks movement or the congestion of a crowd. As a verb ‘jam’ has seven different meanings. Here are a few examples:
i. When we jam something, we press it into a tight position. (The little girl jammed her hat on.)
ii. When musicians jam, they informally play music. (My son was jamming with the guitar.)
iii. When people jam a place, they are pressed tightly together so that they can hardly move.
(Thousands of people jammed the stadium where the football match took place.)
iv. When someone jams a radio signal they send out interfering signals. (Of late, there has
been attempts to jam radio broadcasts)
How many meanings does the word ‘run’ have? Out of curiosity, when I asked this question to my colleagues, friends, students and a few others, they gave different answers: 10, 15, 20, … and nobody went beyond 20. According to the Oxford English Dictionary editors, the word “run” is the single word with the most potential meanings and it has no fewer than 645 different usage cases when the word is used as a verb. Quite interesting, isn’t it? Look at these examples:
i. Every year, she runs in the Mumbai marathon. (takes part in a competition)
ii. Is he interested in running for the Mayor post? (contesting an election as a candidate)
iii. We didn’t expect him to run the country this way? (to be in charge of the country)
iv. Is the machine running? (being switched on and working)
v. Could you run me up to the airport in your car? (to drive)
vi. My nose is running. I need some medicine. (liquid is flowing out because I have a cold)
vii. A beautiful thought ran through my mind. (thought quickly)
In each of the sentences above, the word ‘run’ has a different meaning. How do we know the differences? It is by understanding the context in which the word is used. Context is everything. Learners can improve their vocabulary and learn to use the words in appropriate contexts by reading various texts in English on a multitude of topics. It is exposure to the language that helps them enrich their vocabulary. Knowing the meanings alone is not enough. Learners should be able to use the words in different contexts. Learners can also learn collocations (word chunks) from good dictionaries which give word usage explanations and provide sample sentences for each word.
“In youth we run into difficulties. In old age difficulties run into us” - Josh Billings