Food & Culture

These 10 Words Have the Most Definitions in English

Set yourself down and prepare to run through the list of English words that go above and beyond when it comes to different definitions. These words aren't afraid to take a stand and get recognized for their incredible flexibility. Whether you've got a knack for the turn of a phrase or you've just put your foot in your mouth again, this fall is the perfect time to strike your vocab-building goals. Here are the 10 English words with the most definitions — words that played roles in this paragraph in order, by the way.

Related Video: 10 Other Weird English Facts

Word Wars

Ranking these words should be pretty easy, right? Just open up the dictionary and see which word has the longest entry. Okay ... but which dictionary? And from what year? You see where the complications lie. Well, there's one authoritative source that has put its foot down: the Guinness Book of World Records. It looks to the Oxford English Dictionary, arguably the definitive source for what is and isn't a word in English. In the most recent physical edition of that dictionary, the longest entry goes to the word "set," with a staggering 430 different definitions. Think about it — you can set a set of dishes on the table set at a set time. Okay, great, case closed!

Well, not quite. Notice how we said that their judgment was based on the most recent physical edition of that dictionary? That came out in 1989. And believe it or not, we've come up with some new words since then. In fact, if you ask John Simpson, the former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "run" dethroned "set" long ago. "Set" has actually been the top-ranked word since the very first edition of the dictionary, which came out in 1928. It stayed on top in the second (the edition the Guinness Book used), and with the third edition still two decades or so away, it's not likely to change in the world's favorite record book any time soon. But if you go by the definitions found online, "run" absolutely blows "set" out of the water with no fewer than 645 different definitions as of 2011.

Setting the Top 10 in Running Order

So maybe we can't say definitively what word has the most definitions in the dictionary. But since the Guinness Book set the standard when they chose "set," let's keep going down the list to get the top 10 words with the most definitions, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

10. Strike (250 definitions). This is one of the sportiest words in the dictionary. Baseball has strikes, bowling has strikes, even fencing has strikes. And that's just scratching the surface.

9. Fall (264 definitions). Every fall, the leaves fall down as students go to school to learn about the fall of the Roman Empire while trying to keep their grades from falling. Yup, checks out.

8. Put (268 definitions). Number 8 with a bullet. "Put" might be one of the main reasons why "set" is (ahem) falling from favor. After all, these days, you put things down more than you set them anywhere.

7. Turn (288 definitions). For everything, turn, turn, turn, and so on. It's not just about rotating; it's also about going in order, making a major change, or sleeping restlessly.

6. Get (289 definitions). Yup, "get" comes in with just one more definition than "turn." Pretty sure that's what they call a major get.

5. Stand (334 definitions). You can take a stand, and you don't even have to stand up to do it. You do, however, have to stand to play the timpani — and you'll probably want a music stand while you're at it.

4. Take (343 definitions). There are lots of things you can "take" — and some of them seem contradictory. When you take a class, you enroll; when you take a semester off, you do the opposite. When you take a muffin, you end up with one more muffin than you had before, but when you take a bathroom break, well, you're hopefully leaving more behind.

3. Go (368 definitions). It's not just a cult-classic movie with the most '90s soundtrack ever. It's one of the most multipurpose words in the language. Look back through this list — how many of these words have a "go" as a synonym?

2-1. Run (396 definitions), Set (430 definitions). We're not opening this can of worms again. But it's worth noting that the outdated dictionary gives "run" 29 more definitions than the previous entry — a greater jump than any other on the list. Until you get to "set," of course, with 34 more than "run." These are truly some useful words.

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When you feel yourself doubting if word choice is important, simply turn to Lynne Truss' hilarious "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" (free if you're using Audible for the first time). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 14, 2018

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