The English language has an incredibly rich vocabulary. For every situation one can imagine, there seems to be a variety of words and phrases available to choose from, each with their own subtle inflections of meaning.
And yet at other times, the language seems curiously economical, using one word for a variety of meanings. Take seal, for example. Your first instinct when you think of this word will probably be to picture the marine mammal. And why not, they’re cute, especially the pups.
But there’s also of course a seal around an opening to keep it airtight.
And a wax seal on an old letter to show who it was from. It’s from this meaning that we get the modern phrase seal of approval.
One can see the similarity between these last two uses of seal: both keep something closed and secure. Both can also be used as verbs, and we can also use it as a verb in a phrase such as to seal a deal. Again, it’s a slightly different context, but it has the same concept of securing.
And of course there’s Seal, the singer. It was actually him who made me think of the word this morning, when I heard Kiss From a Rose on the radio:
However, the fact that seal has so many uses is partly coincidence. Seal as in the animal has its origins in old Nordic or Germanic languages, whereas seal as in fastening or stamp comes from Latin. And Seal? His name is from the Yoruba language of his mother’s native Nigeria. I suppose it’s not too strange that the word has so many meanings. There are only so many sounds that a human can make that also sound good as words, so it’s inevitable that different languages will independently come up with identical words.
Still, it’s interesting, and often confusing, to notice how often the same word can be used in different contexts. Often, simple everyday words can surprise us when we think about how many ways we use them. We take them for granted and don’t really notice how flexible they are. Take a look in a dictionary some time and notice the words that have very long entries (to set is a good example). It must be one of the frustrating aspects of learning English. So many times I’ve been asked by a student What does ____ mean? and I have to say Well, it depends… It’s times like that that I appreciate that I never had to learn English as a second language.