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Recently, I forgot whether 鍵【かぎ】 meant lock or key, so I looked it up quickly on my phone's dictionary... And then I found out that it actually means both.

What are the best ways to figure out if someone who is saying 鍵【かぎ】 is talking about a lock or talking about a key? Is the intonation maybe different for each meaning? Is there a way to ask which they are talking about? Is there a common alternative word for one or both of them?

Definitely not as important as the main question, but I'm also wondering if Japanese people sometimes get confused by this or if they just process it naturally since they're used to 鍵【かぎ】?

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As far as I know, 鍵 is usually a key and a lock is 錠. – Zhen Lin May 2 '12 at 8:12
In Japanese 鍵 is almost always lock. In the cases it is not it is very easy to tell by the context of the sentence. – Ian May 2 '12 at 21:43
up vote 9 down vote accepted

The way I understand it is that 錠{じょう} is generally used for "lock" and 鍵{かぎ} for "key". can mean "lock" in some contexts however (this is almost certainly incomplete):

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(I think dainichi's answer may well be more correct than this one is though :D) – cypher May 2 '12 at 11:18

Strictly speaking, 鍵{かぎ} is key and 錠{じょう} is lock. However, in daily speech, 錠 is hardly ever used. Usually, people will say 鍵 to mean either key or lock, and the context will make it clear which one it is.

However, the じょう reading does appear in several common combinations:

施錠{せじょう} (to) lock
開錠{かいじょう} unlock
南京錠{なんきんじょう} padlock

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鍵 means key. The only time where it would mean lock that I can think of is 鍵をかける which means to lock. (literally: "apply the key")

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Strictly speaking, yes. But it is often used to mean lock (another example would be 鍵を閉める) – ジョン May 2 '12 at 13:31

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