“Set” It Up: 430 Different Meanings in 3 Letters

Friday, December 23 min read

The English language is notorious for its abundance of words with multiple meanings, enough so that we even have a term for it: “homonym.” Some words have more definitions than others, but for many years, “set” was listed in Guinness World Records as the word with the most meanings in English, until it was ousted by “run” in the 2010s. The Guinness record is based on the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which was published in 1989. This version is still in print, but the Third Edition is under revision. So, “run” has technically only outpaced “set” in the online version of the OED. Even still, “set” has 430 different senses, and the entry tallies in at 60,000 words.

Setting the Scene

It seems that “set” entered the English lexicon through its verb form — the intransitive sense of “be seated” appeared in 1200. It came from the Middle English setten, meaning “cause to sit; make or cause to rest as on a seat; cause to be put, placed, or seated,” but also “put in a definite place,” “arrange, fix, adjust; fix or appoint (a time) for some affair or transaction,” and “cause (thoughts, affections) to dwell on.”

By the mid-13th century, we had the sense of “sink down, descend, decline towards and pass below the horizon,” in respect to the sun, moon, or stars. At this time we also got “make or cause to do, act, or be; start, bring (something) to a certain state,” as well as “mount of a gemstone” and the idiom “to set (one’s) heart on something.” In the 14th century, “set” appeared as “make a table ready for a meal” and “regulate or adjust by a standard.” In the 15th and 16th centuries, it became “to place (types) in the proper order for reading,” “put words to music,” “put a broken bone into position,” and “become firm or solid in consistency.” We also got the idiom “to set one’s mind on something.”

The noun and adjectival usages of “set” weren’t far behind the verbs. By 1300, we had the adjectival usage “appointed or prescribed beforehand,” and by the 1510s, it also meant “formal, regular, in due form, deliberate.” In the early 14th century, we got the noun meaning “act of setting; state or condition of being set,” and by the mid-15th century, we had the noun usage “collection of matching things.”

Game, Set, Match

So, why are there so many variations on one three-letter word? Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, explained to NPR that the OED is always in motion, much the same way the English language is in motion. Oftentimes these words take on so many meanings because of the vagueness of their definition. “Set” was the winner in the first edition in 1928, only to be replaced by “put,” and then “run.” Run has 645 usages for the verb form alone.

Winchester believes that this is a product of society moving faster, writing in a New York Times op-ed, “It reminds us of the difference between static and mobile, between energy and solidity — why dear old clubbable, sedentary and generally contented ‘set’ has at long last been outstripped by sweaty, muscular, fitness-obsessed and six-pack-muscled ‘run.’”

Perhaps the technological applications of “run” have contributed to the ousting of “set” — one runs an operating system on their device; they also run an app on their phone. And according to Reader’s Digest, “‘Run’ appears to have earned some major lift during the boom of the Industrial Revolution, when all manners of mechanized innovation adopted it as their verb of choice.”

After “set” and “run,” what three-letter word will come out on top next?

Featured image credit: vgajic/ iStock

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