Which English Word Has The Most Definitions?

man looking in the large dictionary

mizar_21984/Getty Images

If you are going to answer a trivia question about which English word has the most definitions, your answer might depend on when the question was written. The old champion was the word "set," which had 430 definitions in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary published in 1989. This record was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records.

In that edition of the OED, the entry for set runs 60,000 words. It beats the others. Here are the runners-up for that edition:

Here's how the others stack up:

  • Run - 396 (definitions)
  • Go - 368
  • Take - 343
  • Stand - 334
  • Get - 289
  • Turn - 288
  • Put - 268
  • Fall - 264
  • Strike - 250

A New Champion for Number of Definitions

Language doesn't stand still. While "set" was the champion since the first edition of the OED in 1928 (when it had a meager 200 meanings), it has been overtaken by the word "run." However, since the next edition of the OED won't be out until 2037, it hasn't made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the champion.

According to the OED's chief editor, John Simpson, "run" has continued to evolve new meanings and had 645 as of 2011. In the interim, the word "put" has outpaced "set" in any case, and even replaces it in many usages. You might "put" something on a table rather than "set" it on a table.

How Should You Answer the Trivia Question?

This brings up a dilemma. How should you answer the question about which English word has the most definitions? If it's possible to ask what authority has determined the answer, go with the word "set" if it is the second edition of the OED or the Guinness Book of World Records. If not, you may worry that the question is based on the New York Times interview with John Simpson in 2011 or a newer source.

Should You Use This Question in a Trivia Quiz?

If you are designing trivia or word game questions, it's best just to drop this one as it is a moving target. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "Modern English includes words from a wide variety of different sources around the world. Patterns of word-borrowing over time reflect the changing demography of its speakers; cultural and economic influences on Britain; the spread of English-speaking explorers, traders, and settlers; and encounters with other cultures."

The English language has one of the largest vocabularies of all the languages of the world. The Oxford English Dictionary contains more than 600,000 words. They are all in a race to have more and more meanings. Even as new ones are added, older ones fall out of favor. You may not even recognize many of the uses of the words.

If you choose to use this as a question, you should cite which authority you are basing the answer on. Check the current Guinness World Record for a readily-accessible source.