It’s not unusual for the same word to have multiple meanings.

“Aloha” is Hawaiian for both “hello” and “goodbye.”

In Hebrew, “shalom” means “hello” and “goodbye” — and “peace.”

But, no single English word I’m aware of has more protean meanings than the word “on.”

I catalog no less than 27(!) discrete definitions.


One. Throwing down the gauntlet (as in a competition):  “It’s on!”

Two. Location:  “you can put that package on the counter”; “I’d like a cherry on top of my hot fudge sundae.”

Three. Competent:  “she’s on top of it.”

Four. In top form:  “that stand-up comic sure is ‘on’ tonight.”

Five. In use; working:  “turn on the light, please”; “the computer doesn’t seem to be on.”

Six. Being played now:  “Hurry! The movie’s on!”; “on air.”

Seven. Continue:  “you’ve got my attention . . . go on.”

Eight. In the possession of (the person referred to): “she only had a few dollars on her.”

Nine. Having (the thing mentioned) as a topic: “a book on careers.”

Ten. Serve as a member of (a committee, jury, or other body): “do you think she’ll want another term on the board?”

Eleven. In the course of (a journey): “he was on his way to see his mother”; “they left on a cruise to Mexico.”

Twelve:  Relevant. “that comment is certainly on point.”

Thirteen. Wearing something:  “that new sweater looks great on you!”

Fourteen. Due to take place as planned:  “is the party is still on?”

Fifteen. Having (the thing mentioned) as a target, aim, or focus: “five air raids on the city.”

Sixteen. Onto (a public conveyance) with the intention of traveling in it: “we got on the plane.”

Seventeen. Regularly taking (a drug or medicine): “he is on morphine to relieve the pain.”

Eighteen. Paid for by: “the drinks are on me.

Nineteen. As a result of accidental physical contact with: “one of the children cut their foot on some glass”

Twenty. Gratuitously excessive:  “on top of everything else . . . he was an hour late!!”

Twenty-one. Depend on:  “I know I can count on you.”

Twenty-two. Taking responsibility for a task or duty:  “I’m on it!”

Twenty-three.  Persevere:  “keep calm and carry on.”

Twenty-four:  Babble.  “The speaker went on and on.”

Twenty-five:  add to something:  “Put it on my tab”; “I’ll put it on the list.”

Twenty-six:  Deceive/Fool:  “stop putting on those gullible kids!”

Twenty-seven:  Gaining weight.  “He’s clearly put on a few pounds since the holidays.”

Next: the 11 definitions of “off.”

See also, “The Many Guises of “Hot Dog”; and ““Re-duded Home”.

About the author

Ross Kaplan has 19+ years experience selling real estate all over the Twin Cities. He is also a 12-time consecutive "Super Real Estate Agent," as determined by Mpls. - St. Paul Magazine and Twin Cities Business Magazine. Prior to becoming a Realtor, Ross was an attorney (corporate law), CPA, and entrepreneur. He holds an economics degree from Stanford.

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