Lean Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How to Use It

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In the English language, we have so many words with so many definitions. The same word with the same spelling can have multiple definitions that don’t relate to each other whatsoever, sometimes making conversation, reading, and writing a little confusing. 

One such word is “lean.” This nifty little word is incredibly versatile and can be used in a variety of contexts to mean many things. 

So, today’s word of the day is “lean.” By the end of this guide, you’ll understand the word lean, its definitions, its etymology, and how to use it. Let’s get started.

What Is the Definition of the Word Lean?

The word lean (lēn) has several definitions. Some of them are more similar than others, but there are some outliers that can construe your understanding. Here are the definitions of the word lean in its different forms. 

As a Verb

  • To incline or bend something to a slanted position
  • To rely on someone or something
  • To be inclined to a certain opinion or position

As an Adjective

  • When referring to meat, having little fat and substance
  • Slender and fit
  • Not having much productivity or richness (typically in a business context)

In the verb form, most of the definitions fall under the intransitive verb category, meaning that there is no direct object. 

As you can see, there are many definitions that a person could invoke when they use this word. It could refer to the way somebody leans on a table, how a person leans on their friend in a time of need, or how somebody is left-leaning or right-leaning in their political views. 

It could also be referring to a tough piece of meat with little fat, a fit person, or a company whose profits aren’t as good as they normally are. It’s important to look at the context of the word and use your intuition to accurately determine the definition being used.

Lean Manufacturing

With the rising awareness of climate change and the growing need to better our business practices and make them cleaner, a technique called “lean manufacturing” has come into prominence. 

The phrasal verb “lean manufacturing” refers to manufacturing that intentionally minimizes waste and reduces cost for the betterment of the planet and the consumer. 

Common Collocations

A collocation is a common pairing of words. The word lean, because of its highly common use, has many collocations in English. Here are a few of them. 

  • Lean back
  • Lean on
  • Lean meat
  • Lean years
  • Lean manufacturing

Where Did the Word Lean Come From?

To help bring more clarity to the meaning of the word lean, let’s look at the history of how this word found its way into the English language. 

It is believed that the oldest ancestor of the word lean comes from the Latin and Greek languages. The Latin inclinare and the Greek klinein appeared in the ancient world, and they typically meant “to bend, incline, or lower something” or “to decay or get worse.”

As you can see, even in its earliest form, the word had a few different definitions. Those definitions still apply to it today, even through all of the evolutions it has undergone since then.  

From this root, the word found its way into the Germanic languages. The German lehnen, the Dutch leunen, and the Old English hleonian and hlinian all had similar definitions. Based on their pronunciations and spelling, it’s clear that they came from the aforementioned Latin and Greek words. 

During the Middle English period, as the English language was evolving rapidly, we see the words hleonian and hlinian start to arise. During this time, we also see the Middle English lene and Middle English lenen, with the same definitions. 

From these forms, we get the modern English word “lean.” It has a Germanic origin, like many English words, but it finds its roots in Latin at the end of the day. After the word came into English, it developed some its additional definitions.

What Are Some Examples of Lean in a Sentence?

Here are some example sentences with the word lean that can help bring clarity to how this word is used in context. 

The Tower of Pisa leans away from its vertical position, but it’s still structurally sound and is a popular tourist attraction. 

We’re on a lean budget this quarter because profits have been declining as of late. 

His lean figure had little flesh left, but he was able to survive being stranded on the island with hardly any food. 

Her lean, thin appearance definitely helped get her the modeling job. 

I don’t lean in any particular direction politically; I’m more of a centrist. 

I just want to lean back and recline in my favorite armchair. 

If you lean a broom up against a wall, it’s sure to fall over at some point. 

The filling is just a lean mixture of pork, chives, and garlic. 

I may be the leanest guy on the team, but that doesn’t mean I can’t hold my own out there.

Even though this is a pretty lean ore vein, I think there’s still enough mineral content in it to make it worth mining. 

What Are Some Synonyms of the Word Lean?

Here are some synonyms of the word lean that you might find in a thesaurus. 

  • Slim
  • Slender
  • Skinny
  • Lank
  • Bow
  • Incline
  • Slant
  • Tilt
  • Confide 
  • Rely

What Are Its Antonyms?

Here is a word list of the antonyms of the word lean. 

  • Straighten
  • Plump
  • Thick
  • Distrust
  • Disregard

The Word Lean

The word lean is not an overly complex word, but it does have several definitions that can bring some confusion if you aren’t familiar with all of them. 

Now, you have the information you need about the word lean. Use it confidently in your conversations and your writing. If you need a refresher on the word lean and its meanings, come back to this article for the information you’ve forgotten. 


LEAN | Cambridge English Dictionary 

Lean Manufacturing and the Environment | US EPA 

Why the double consonant in ladder | Real Spellers