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Getting set for definition

John Murray

Of all the words we English speakers use, which one do you think is recognised to have the most different ways of using it?

According to Oxford Dictionaries, the word that boasts this honour is ‘set’, with a staggering 464 definitions.

That might surprise  a few people, who may instantly think of more tangible nouns like ‘fly’, which can be either a winged insect or a verb meaning to glide through the air. Delve a little deeper into ‘set’ though, and it soon becomes apparent what a diverse three-letter cluster it is.

For a start, ‘set’ can be a noun, adjective or verb, and has multiple meanings in each of these lexical categories:


You would perhaps first think of ‘a set’ as meaning a collection. It’s a word commonly used on TV programmes like The Antiques Roadshow to describe a group of items being valued together.

If you’re a fan of tennis, ‘a set’ might be more of a fixed number for you. It’s typically a total of six victorious games, and usually half or a third of what you need to win a match.


‘Set’ can describe a noun as well as be one. You could point out that there is no set number of ‘set’ definitions, since new ones could come in and existing ones could fall out of usage.

‘Set’ can also mean ‘ready’, as in ‘I’m set for action’.


This is where ‘set’ really comes into its own. Bear in mind that you can set a table, a record or a scene, but you’re not really doing the same action with any of them. Some things can set themselves, like cement and jelly.

Then, consider how the dynamics of the word ‘set’ can change depending on the preposition relating to it. Here are just a few examples:

• Set up a business
• Set off a firework
• Set across some rules
• Set out a plan

Perhaps the hardest thing about understanding a language is getting your head around the nuances of simple words like ‘set’. Imagine you spoke no English and were presented with a phrase like ‘set up a business’. You could soon look the word ‘business’ up in a dictionary, but if you did the same thing with ‘set’ and ‘up’, you would be there all day and might still come to a nonsensical conclusion.

So, ‘set’ sets the record for the biggest set of definitions, but why don’t you set about finding other words with mountains of meanings?

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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