Have you found a Chinese word could have different meanings for different contexts? “这个大学很水，硕士学位含金量很低。” Do you know what meanings of “水” and “含金量” in this sentence? Do they simply just refer to water and gold content?
Just like some words in English, for example, when is your “date” of birth? My favourite fruit is “date”. He has a “date” with his girlfriend. Do you see it? A word with multiple meanings can be incredibly useful!
A word with multiple meanings is called “一词多义” (yī cí duō yì). Here I summarised 10 common Chinese words with multiple meanings. Chinese people use them quite often in their daily life. When using this kind of words, be careful with each particular context and get a feeling of what meaning has been applied.
1. 水 (shuǐ)
Its original meaning is water. You might often hear Chinese people say “开水” (kāi shuǐ) which is boiled water. In groceries, you can find “矿泉水” (kuàng quán shuǐ, spring water). When you want to buy a bottle of water, you can say “我去买瓶水” (wǒ qù mǎi píng shuǐ). When you want to get a cup of water, you can say “我去倒杯水” (wǒ qù dào bēi shuǐ).
Except for its original meaning, nowadays “水” can also be used to describe the functions of something or the abilities of someone is terrible. “这个大学很水” (zhè gè dà xué hěn shuǐ). The translation is this university is awful. Another example can be “我的英文很水，还有很大的进步空间” (wǒ de yīng wén hěn shuǐ, hái yǒu hěn dà de jìn bù kōng jiān). (My English is not good. I have lots of room to improve my English. )
2. 含金量 (hán jīn liàng)
Its original meaning is the percentage of gold in a gold product. For example, “这条项链的含金量高达百分之八十” (zhè tiáo xiàng liàn de hán jīn liàng gāo dá bǎi fēn zhī bā shí). (The gold content of this necklace is 80%.)
But now we can hear lots of Chinese people say that word in a completely different context， which means the actual value of something. For example, “这个大学的硕士学位含金量很低” (zhè gè dà xué de shuò shì xué wèi hán jīn liàng hěn dī). (The actual value of the master’s degree in this university is quite low.) Another example can be “这篇文章不长，但含金量很高，运用广泛” (zhè piān wén zhāng bú zháng, dàn hán jīn liàng hěn gāo, yùn yòng guǎng fàn). (The article is not long but the actual value is huge The method is widely used.)
3. 算账 (suàn zhàng)
Its original meaning is “calculate the bill/budget”. For example, “我正在算账，一会儿告诉你要交多少钱” (wǒ zhèng zài suàn zhàng, yī huìr gào sù nǐ yào jiāo duō shǎo qián). (I am calculating the bill. I will tell you how much you need to pay later.)
But you may often hear Chinese people say that word in another situation, for example, “他都没跟我说，就把我的衣服扔了。等他回来，我要找他算账！” (tā dōu méi gēn wǒ shuō, jiù bǎ wǒ de yī fu rēng le. děng tā huí lái, wǒ yào zhǎo tā suàn zhàng!). (He threw my clothes away. He didn’t even ask me. When he comes back, I will argue with him!) In that case, “算账” means “argue”, since here the wife is mad with his husband.
4. 下台阶 (xià tái jiē)
Its original meaning is “step down/go downstairs”. For example, many hills in China have thousands of stairs, and now we are at the top of a hill. We may say “我们现在要下台阶了” (wǒ men xiàn zài yào xià tái jiē le, let’s step down the hill).
It also has another meaning, for example, “他们俩总吵架。但每次都是阿星给希希台阶下。” (tā men liǎng zǒng chǎo jià. dàn měi cì dōu shì ā xīng gěi xī xī tái jiē xià. The translation is “They always quarrel. But every time Ah Xing find the way to get rid of the embarrassment to keep the relationship with Xixi.”) In that case, “给…台阶下” means “help someone get rid of the embarrassment”. Another example can be “老板当众问小王一个问题，小王没回答出来，让小王下不来台” (lǎo bǎn dāng zhòng wèn xiǎo wáng yī gè wèn tí, xiǎo wáng méi huí dá chū lái, ràng xiǎo wáng xià bú lái tái. The translation is “the boss asks Xiao Wang a question in public, but he doesn’t know how to answer it, which makes him embarrassed”). So here “让…下不来台” means “make someone embarrassed”.
5. 口 (kǒu)
Its original meaning is “mouth”, which can also be called “嘴” or “嘴巴” (zuǐ or zuǐ ba). But we often use this character “口” in a phrase， like “开口” (kāi kǒu). For example:
– 你倒是开口问他呀！(nǐ dǎo shì kāi kǒu wèn tā ya!)
– 可我开不了口…… (kě wǒ kāi bù le kǒu…)
In this conversation, the first speaker asks, “You need to open your mouth! Ask him!” The second speaker replies, “But I just can’t open my mouth…” Here “开口问” (kāi kǒu wèn) means “ask”, and “开不了口” (kāi bù le kǒu) means “it’s hard to ask” for the second speaker. You can also say “开口唱” (kāi kǒu chàng) which means “sing”. You may also hear someone say the other is “开口跪”, which means the other is good at giving a speech or singing so that this person admires. So “开口跪” (kāi kǒu guì) is used to describe somebody’s voice is charming.
Another meaning of “开口” can be something open or got a broken seal. For example, “生蚝开口了” (shēng háo kāi kǒu le. The oysters have opened already).
Besides, “口” can be used in a phrase like “两口子” (liǎng kǒu zi), which means “married couple”. Another word can be “小两口” (xiǎo liǎng kǒu), which means young married couple. The elders often use “两口子” or “小两口” to call the young married couple, more like witty words.
6. 冷/热 (lěng /rè)
The original meanings of “冷” and “热” are “cold” and “hot”, respectively. But we often extend the meanings and use them with a metaphor.
For example, “冷场” (lěng chǎng) can be used to describe a situation when there is nobody speak up in a meeting or nobody laughing in a talk show. So “冷场” means an awkward silence in a meeting or stage. “他的相声不好玩，总是冷场” (tā de xiàng shēng bù hǎo wán, zǒng shì lěng chǎng). The translation is his talk show is not funny, always has an awkward silent moment. “热” can be used in “热场子” (rè chǎng zi) or “热热场” (rè rè chǎng) as well. It means “icebreaker” to break the silence before a meeting or a show starts.
“热” in English is “hot”. “Hot” can be used to describe someone sexy or spicy food. But it is not applicable in Chinese. You can say “辣” (là) or “性感” (xìng gǎn) to describe someone sexy. You can also express food is “好辣” (hǎo là), which means the food is spicy.
You can use “热” as a verb, which means “heat the leftovers”. So you can say “热饭” (rè fàn) or “热菜” (rè cài). Another example can be “热身” (rè shēn) or “热热身” (rè rè shēn). It means “warm-up”. You can use it when you wanna warm-up before you are going to jogging, so you can say “在我跑步前，我先热热身” (zài wǒ pǎo bù qián, wǒ xiān rè rè shēn). When a teacher leads the students to review the previous contents at the beginning of the class, the teacher may say “正式开始前，先让你们热热身” (zhèng shì kāi shǐ qián, xiān ràng nǐ men rè rè shēn).
“热” can also be used in a word like 热情, 热恋, 热吻, 热搜 or 热帖.
热情 (rè qíng): passionate, is used to describe a hospitable person.
热恋 (rè liàn): is usually the stage for a couple just falling in love with each other and hard to be apart from each other.
热吻 (rè wěn): usually a kiss between a couple when they are “热恋” ing.
热搜 (rè sōu): top tend in Chinese social media “微博” (Weibo).
热帖 (rè tiě): similar to “热搜”, means popular post.
7. 黄色 (huáng sè)
Its original meaning is the colour yellow. Sometimes it also means Pornographic or porn. It can be used in the phrase like “黄色小说” (huáng sè xiǎo shuō, erotic novels).
8. 海 (hǎi)
Its original meaning is sea or ocean. You may also hear the word “人山人海” (rén shān rén hǎi) and “人海茫茫” (rén hǎi máng máng). These four-character Chinese words have a metaphor using “海” to describe large amounts of people. But “人海茫茫” has an additional meaning – a feeling of confusion or disappointment because of the word “茫茫”.
chūn jiē qī jiān, huǒ chē zhàn rén shān rén hǎi.
During the Spring Festival, there are too many people in the train station.
rén hǎi máng máng, wǒ qù nǎ zhǎo nǐ a?
So many people here, how can I find you?
Another example with “海” can be “海量” (hǎi liàng). It is also used to describe the amount of something large like an ocean. Here I gave you two most common examples using “海量”:
zài Maayot wǎng zhàn shàng yǒu hǎi liàng zhōng wén cí huì děng nǐ lái tàn suǒ !
The website Maayot has a large number of Chinese vocabularies waiting for your discovery!
zhāng zǒng nín shì hǎi liàng a, bú fáng duō hē jǐ bēi !
Mr Zhang, your drinking capacity is huge! Why not drink more!
So you can see “海量” is often used to describe vocabularies, information or someone’s drinking capacity.
Have you memorised all the “一词多义” above? Now let’s “开口” practice with your Chinese friends using these “一词多义”! There are still “海量” Chinese words with multiple meanings and you may find out later!
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