Question about 先 split meaning

I was going through Tae Kim’s practice section for state of being (だ, じゃない, etc) and noticed that he had 先 but had marked it as ahead/future (he appears to use it for past/previous too). This confused me since I’ve only learned it as せん or previous on WK up to now. Looking at先%20%23kanji it does appear that both are correct meanings.

Is this something that requires sentence context or will words that use it for past like context generally have different attached kanji/okurigana than those with a future context? Wondering how likely this is to confuse me once I get to those words.

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I’ve never seen it used to mean future but looking at the Jisho entry it’s part of the word 先行き or “the future”. So, I assume it’s just in the context of that one word. I wouldn’t worry about it.

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Similarly to the word “before,” 先 refers to a relative position, but that means in an absolute sense it could be in front of or behind you, depending on the perspective you take.

In the phrase お先に失礼します, said when leaving work before your coworkers, you’re talking about a future action, but it’s appropriate because you’re doing it before your coworkers. It’s “previous” to your coworkers and you’re leaving “ahead” of them.


Just wanted to add that if you look up “先 #words” on jisho, on the second page you find, 「先々」、「先送り」、「先行き」 which are translated there as “distant future; inevitable future​”, “postpone​” and “the future; future prospects​”.


A Kanji can have different readings and meanings as well so it’s normal.

I learned this version of the Kanji by playing Pokemon games, you will often see your rival say something like 先に行く which simply means “I am going ahead”. In Pokemon sword I even saw 先の先 I think which was weird. Ahead of the ahead? I guess it’s just a way to emphasize on “ahead” lol.

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I see it regularly used on signs warning of road construction ahead. The signs will have the distance to the construction after the kanji. It confused me at first also, but decided that it wasn’t saying the construction is ahead 300m, the way signs are in the US (and I am assuming other English speaking countries), but rather that the driver is 300m before the construction.


Thanks, putting it this way helps my understanding a lot.