A few weeks ago, we were copied on an email that had this amusing passage:
“You lovers of the English language might enjoy this.
There is a two-letter word that perhaps has more meanings than any other two-letter word, and that is “up.”
It’s easy to understand up, meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but when we awaken [sic] in the morning, why do we wake up? At a meeting, why does a topic come up? Why do we speak up and why are the officers up for election and why is it up to the secretary to write up a report?
We call up our friends. And we use it to brighten up a room, polish up the silver; we warm up the leftovers and clean up the kitchen. We lock up the house and some guys fix up the old car … At other times the little word has real special meaning. People stir up trouble, line up for tickets, work up an appetite, and think up excuses. To be dressed is one thing, but to be dressed up is special.
And this up is confusing: A drain must be opened up because it is stopped up. We open up a store in the morning but we close it up at night.
We seem to be pretty mixed up about up! To be knowledgeable about the proper uses of up, look the word up in the dictionary. In a desk-sized dictionary, it takes up almost 1/4th of the page and can add up to about thirty definitions. If you are up to it, you might try building up a list of the many ways up is used. It will take up a lot of your time, but if you don’t give up, you may wind up with a hundred or more. When it threatens to rain, we say it is clouding up. When the sun comes out we say it is clearing up …
When it rains, it wets the earth and often messes things up. When it doesn’t rain for awhile, things dry up. One could go on and on, but I’ll wrap it up, for now my time is up, so … it is time to shut up! Oh … one more thing:
What is the first thing you do in the morning & the last thing you do at night? U-P.”
As comical as this is, we were curious about the claim re: up, “perhaps has more meanings than any other two-letter word.” For years, we have been under the impression that, in the English language, the word (regardless of the number of letters in the word) with the most definitions is “run.” So, we went digging around …
Here’s what we found out, per the Oxford English Dictionary, about words with the most definitions … the top ten:
- set (464 definitions)
- run (396 definitions)
- go (368 definitions)
- take (343 definitions)
- stand (334 definitions)
- get (289 definitions)
- turn (288 definitions)
- put (268 definitions)
- fall (264 definitions)
- strike (250 definitions)
Now we have learned that the word “up” doesn’t even make the top ten, nor does it come close to the two-letter word “go,” which graces the list at position three. However, we also learned that our impression about the word “run” was wrong. Can we even say we were close, being 68 definitions behind the number-one ranked word “set“?
Who really cares? Well, besides those of us who have obsessions with words, grammar, etc., many English language learners care because they want to learn to use our language correctly … bless their hearts. If you are a native English speaker, it’s likely difficult for you to imagine yourself making your way through a language that has almost 500 definitions for a single word, much less navigating its complex set of rules of grammar and usage. Wow!
Here’s one little three-letter versatile powerhouse … Set can be a verb, a noun, an adjective, or an interjection … it can be used with or without an object, and it is the mainstay of many phrases, such as: set about, set against, set ahead, set apart, set aside, set back, set by, set down, set forth, set in, set off, set on, set out, set to, and set up. Set also appears in several idioms, including set forward, set one’s face against, set store by, and get set! (definitions of which you can find at dictionary.com).
We will not list all of the definitions for set, rather, we choose to leave you with this … we’re off to set the table for dinner but we don’t need to set a fire because the 105 degree heat in Austin today set another record. We just watched a set or two of tennis on the TV set before writing this post to set the record straight. We discussed a set of words in our blog after we set the timer on the sprinkler, both of which set our mind at ease. The date is set for our next party at which we hope to set a good example of holiday entertaining. We must set down the pen to type, but we no longer need to set type to print our articles. That beautiful ring we saw the other day is set with gorgeous stones, but it would set us back too much to afford it. We didn’t fall on the stage set, however, once the bone was broken, the doctor had to set it for it to heal properly. Now, having set our minds to it, we’re now going for the set of golf clubs and hit the links … before we set ourselves down and watch the sun set.
Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, dictionary.com