Why do some words mean so many things? An example

It’s really common for a student learning a new language to get confused by words that are very similar and have different meanings. Some other words have more than one meaning, and they are all used. Some of these meanings can be easier to distinguish (for example: ‘segundo’, meaning 1 sec and also 2nd), but some other are more rare and therefore can be harder to learn. In Spanish, we call this “polisemia”. As a native speaker, we normally don’t notice these words, but I understand it can be challenging for students.

One friend of mine was surprised about how many different meanings does the Spanish word ‘cuenta’ have. Because of this, I am going to list the most used meanings of ‘cuenta’:

  • cuenta: bill (for example: ¡camarero, la cuenta, por favor!)
  • cuenta: calculation (for example: la profesora de matemáticas enseña a hacer cuentas)
  • cuenta: bead (for example: tengo un collar de cuentas amarillas)
  • cuenta bancaria: bank account (for example: tengo una cuenta ahorro joven)
  • cuenta: account (for example: no me sé la contraseña de mi cuenta de chatterbug)
  • darse cuenta: to notice (for example: me he dado cuenta de que he dejado la casa abierta)
  • ella/él cuenta, ¡cuenta tú! (from verb contar): to tell (e.g.: mi abuela nos cuenta historias de cuando era pequeña), to count (e.g.: el coche cuenta los kilómetros), to count on somebody (e.g.: ¡cuenta conmigo!)
    …and so many other meanings…

Do you know any other palabras polisémicas in Spanish? Any words that seem similar but have totally different meanings? Answer in the comments!


Muchas gracias :raised_hands: This is a really good topic. I love the words banco and bolsa. Confusing for my students but easy to remember :sweat_smile:.

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You’re right @josemsobg it can be really confusing sometimes! During my last live lesson with @Bea94 I discovered a new meaning for llave, I knew it meant “key” :old_key: but it can also mean “(gas) tap” or “(water) faucet” :potable_water: !

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There is in fact another meaning for llave :sweat_smile:. In Colombia men call their friends llave as it in bro.


@josemsobg This was really helpful, thanks so much!

@27sp.sandra Thanks for adding the extra meaning of “llave” like “bro”, I didn’t know that! Woulda woman use this word / could you use this word about a friend who is a woman?

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Also another meaning for llave is “llave de judo” (judo hold).
Also, non-native speakers have to be careful using ‘llave’ as a translation for ‘key’. For example if you want to say: “The key for learning vocabulary is reading”, then you would need the word 'clave’→"La clave para aprender vocabulario es la lectura".


Actually, a woman could use the word but it is too colloquial and we would see that as somebody that spends lots of time on the streets :grimacing:.

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Interesting, thanks for the cultural insight @27sp.sandra!

@josemsobg great tip! La clave para aprender palabras polisémicas es la ayuda de buenos tutores, cierto? :wink: