I am not a native speaker and it sometimes surprise me how many different meanings some words have. An example is the word call - when I was learning English I thought it was only "shout" or "to ring someone" but the list of meanings is almost endless: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/call .

What are some other such words so that I can be careful when interpreting their meaning? As if I could execute the query "give me a top ten list of words with most definition lines on TheFreeDictionary".

  • this does not help you to be more careful when interpreting the meaning of words. Lots of words have lots of different meanings.Did you know you can have loud tie, rude stones, or stump speech? Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 2:44
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    What are you considering a "word" for the purposes of this question? The answer might not be the same if the question is based on spelling or pronunciation. Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 12:28
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    This question is asking for a list of words. What's EL&U policy on word list questions?
    – Hugo
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 12:35
  • Peter: Spelling. Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 12:48

7 Answers 7


For a long time, "set" had the most meanings in the OED, but now it is "run". From the New York Times of 25th May 2011:

Which is the most lustrously complex word among the three quarters of a million or so words and senses that make up this vast mongrel tongue we know as the English language?

Well, according to the O.E.D.’s chief editor, John Simpson, we now have a winner — and a winner that may well say something about the current state of English-speaking humankind. For while in the first edition of the O.E.D., in 1928, that richest-of-all-words was “set” (75 columns of type, some 200 senses), the victor in today’s rather more frantic and uncongenial world is, without a doubt, the three-letter word “run.”

... Mr. Gilliver has finally calculated that there are for the verb-form alone of “run” no fewer than 645 meanings. A record.

In terms of sheer size, the entry for “run” is half as big again as that for “put,” a word on which Mr. Gilliver also worked some years ago. But more significantly still, “run” is also far bigger than the old chestnut “set,” a word that, says Mr. Gilliver, simply “hasn’t undergone as much development in the 20th and 21st centuries as has ‘run.’ ”


This is what I get using WRI curated data. Click to see a larger image.

enter image description here

For the record, the script used is:

r = SortBy[{Length[#[[2]]], #[[1]]}&/@({#, WordData[#]} & /@ DictionaryLookup[]), -First@# &]
 ChartLabels -> 
  Placed[Text[Style[#, Italic, 24]] & /@ Transpose[r1][[2]], Center, Rotate[#, Pi/2] &]]


Just answering comments and other answers, here are the 76 meanings of break according to WRI.

1   Noun     Flight
2   Noun     Open Frame
3   Noun     Dash
4   Noun     Change Of Integrity
5   Noun     Holdup
6   Noun     Break Of Serve
7   Noun     Shot
8   Noun     Pause
9   Noun     Modification
10  Noun     Breach
11  Noun     Fortuity
12  Noun     Breakup
13  Noun     Occurrent
14  Noun     Crevice
15  Noun     Hurt
16  Noun     Interval
17  Verb     Weaken
18  Verb     Diminish
19  Verb     Injure
20  Verb     Fall
21  Verb     Domesticate
22  Verb     Change
23  Verb     Turn
24  Verb     Damage
25  Verb     Change Integrity
26  Verb     Divide
27  Verb     Check
28  Verb     Develop
29  Verb     Break Off
30  Verb     Interrupt
31  Verb     Deaden
32  Verb     Break Down
33  Verb     Change Voice
34  Verb     Go
35  Verb     Lick
36  Verb     Destroy
37  Verb     Diphthongize
38  Verb     Disrupt
39  Verb     Pause
40  Verb     Tell
41  Verb     Get Out
42  Verb     Outstrip
43  Verb     Penetrate
44  Verb     Become Punctured
45  Verb     Detach
46  Verb     Crumble
47  Verb     Bust
48  Verb     Disunite
49  Verb     Shoot
50  Verb     Modify
51  Verb     Exchange
52  Verb     Express Feelings
53  Verb     Trip The Light Fantastic Toe
54  Verb     Give Way
55  Verb     Founder
56  Verb     Appear
57  Verb     Scatter
58  Verb     Take Flight
59  Verb     Get Away
60  Verb     Change Direction
61  Verb     Impoverish
62  Verb     Designate
63  Verb     Split
64  Verb     Invalidate
65  Verb     Break Away
66  Verb     Ruin
67  Verb     Disrespect
68  Verb     Trespass
69  Verb     Come About
70  Verb     Emerge
71  Verb     Violate
72  Verb     Quit
73  Verb     Give Up Habit
74  Verb     Vary
75  Verb     Finish
76  Interjection     
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    Does this mean that "break" has most different meanings? In other answers it has been suggested that such word is "set" which is only eleventh on this list. Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 12:38
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    @Borek It means it has the most definitions in the WordData set, which is based on a wide range of sources. If you're counting meanings, it depends on whose meanings they are. WordData is a good sample in that you can search and analyse it easily with computer scripts: you can get a good feel of the top answers. The OED is good in that it's a single source maintained by a respected authority in English language, the definitions won't overlap. Another dictionary may have another word at the top of the list.
    – Hugo
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 13:37
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    @Borek According to WRI, set is the 11th word in the list with 44 different meanings. Please note that I don't claim anything about the correctness of WRI data. Just happens to be the only numerical data I have at hand to play with. Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 13:42
  • And you could also limit yourself to definitions currently in use...
    – GEdgar
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 14:35
  • @GEdgar According to WRI, there are no archaisms in the list, and only one colloquialism (Come about) Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 15:37

This trivia has already been studied. The top five words in the list are:

  • set (464 definitions)
  • run (396 definitions)
  • go (368 definitions)
  • take (343 definitions)
  • stand (334 definitions)

I believe the answer is set. It has more than 200 definitions in the OED, organised thus:

  1. To cause to sit, seat; to be seated, sit.

  2. To sink, descend.

  3. To put in a definite place (the manner of the action being implied either in the verb itself or in the context).

  4. To place or cause to be in a position, condition, relation, or connection. (This group embraces a large number of uses in which the precise implication of sense depends mainly on the kind of construction employed.)

  5. To appoint, prescribe, ordain, establish.

  6. To arrange, fix, adjust.

  7. To place mentally, suppose, estimate.

  8. To put or come into a settled position or condition.

  9. To put in the way of following a course, cause to take a certain direction.

  10. Senses perhaps arising from reversal of construction or from ellipsis (their origin being often obscure).

  11. With prepositions in specialized senses.

  12. With adverbs in specialized senses.

This is just for the verb usage, set is also used as an adjective, noun, conjunction and comb. form.

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    "Set" has dozens of specialized definitions in mathematics, computing, boating, tennis, music, farming, medicine, volleyball, dancing, acting, jewelry, track, fishing, cards, and so on. Commented Apr 24, 2012 at 5:34

The most polysemous word in the OED is set.

  • This one I've always heard. But how does that correspond with the Wolfram/Mathemtaica data? 'set' isn't even in that top 20 list. It makes me distrust both the anecdote about 'set' and the Wolfram data.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 12:37
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    BTW "polysemous" is a nice word, new to me :) Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 12:48
  • @Mitch Set is the 11th word in the list with 44 different meanings. Please note that I don't claim anything about the correctness of WRI data. Just happens to be the only numerical data I have at hand to play with. Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 13:41
  • @Borek: I like it as well, it's a nice heterological word. Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 13:46
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    This is from the OED dictionary facts page: "Longest entry in Dictionary: the verb ‘set’ with over 430 senses consisting of approximately 60,000 words or 326,000 characters." oed.com/public/facts/dictionary-facts
    – Shoe
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 16:47

Just to concur with Shoe, I remember reading long long ago - in the Guinness Book of Records of all places - that set has the most (22) distinct different meanings in English.

Another common problem among non-native users of English are phrasal verbs which can appear very similar but have quite different meanings, eg set up, set out, set off, set about, set on, set down, etc. Often native speakers will use these verbs in an attempt to simplify their language when talking to non-native speakers (eg, by using "set up" instead of "establish"), often having the opposite effect.

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    Yes, I realized that when I was in the UK. Native speakers like to use phrasal verbs while it's exactly what causes me the biggest problems. I guess it's because in my native language, one "logical word" is is almost exclusively written as one "written word", so when a Czech teacher teaches English language she naturally prefers single words (like "continue") over phrasal verbs ("carry on"). Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 12:43

In practical usage rather than dictionary definitions, thingamy probably has the most different meanings - it can mean any noun, depending on context, and I think there are more nouns than other parts of speech. There are other four-letter words which also take multiple meanings depending on context.

Another word which can take multiple meanings is 'buffalo' which can act as a noun ( the animal ), and adjectival phrase ( pertaining to the city ) and a verb ( to harass ) so 'Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo' is possibly the longest sentence made of the same word repeated, parsed in a similar way to 'London cats annoy London cats'

  • By that reasoning, 'it' can stand for anything, not just physical objects (also works for abstract nouns like 'truth'). 'he' or 'she' for any person, 7 billion last counting... shoot ... use 'they' for any subset of 7 billion people, and throw in objects... 2^(7 billion).
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 14:20

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