What is the most complex word in the English language?
At first, you might think of something long, like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which is among the longest words of the English language. However, long does not necessarily mean complex. By "complex," we mean "the most definitions." The more definitions a word has, the more scenarios it will inevitably be used in, the more “complex” the word becomes. Now, the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious simply means "extraordinarily good, or wonderful."
And that’s really it. See, there’s not many situations where you would find yourself using such a word, as elegant as it may seem.
Okay, so supercalifragilisticexpialidocious isn't the most complex word. But, it could also be pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis… but again, length isn’t everything. That also has a simple definition. According to Oxford Dictionaries, it is "an artificially long word said to mean a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust."
Maybe instead of pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis or supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, it could be floccinaucinihilipilification, which is a fun word that means, according to Grammarly, "the estimation of something as worthless." Ironically, it is a pretty worthless word itself and is only really used as an example of a long word, seems fitting though, doesn’t it?
Okay, but how about sesquipedalianism? Alright, maybe I’m just including this here for its definition, but it’s still long nevertheless… and it means "the tendency to use long words." But again, it isn't the most complex word.
As intuitive as it may sound, the more common the word is, the more “complex” it becomes. That’s because the more and more we use a certain word, the more “connotations,” or implied meanings it starts to acquire. Now none of those stupidly long words were the most complex word. So what is it? Well, officially, it is… set.
Unofficially, it’s run. Yeah, those two three-letter words have the most definitions in the English language, and therefore, are the most “complex.” Run, with 645 definitions, technically holds the title, or will in a 2037 edition of the Oxford English dictionary. Currently, it is held by set, with 430 meanings. There’s literally over 220 pages needed to cover every single definition of set.
Don't believe me? Well, you can set something in a certain position. A novel, movie, or play can be set in New York City. A bracelet can be set in emeralds. A precious stone could be set in something. You can set type by printing. You can set a table, you can set a plant to grow, you could be set thinking by something.
You could have set a problem, set an example, set a record, set a date, or set your watch to a specific time. And speaking of setting things to a specific time, you can also set your alarm clock to ring at a specific time. You can set volume. Something can set in cooking, and a broken bone can also set. The sun can set, a fire can set, and someone can be set in a seat.
Think that's a lot? Well, that's just the first meaning. There could be a set of false teeth, you could have a robotics set. Even though this is slightly old-fashioned wording, you could watch a TV set. Speaking of TV, in filmmaking, a set is a location that something is filmed in. A filming set could also be the area in which something is filmed — the director was interviewed on set.
For the third definition. There could be a set procedure in something; you could have a set expression. These words are set beforehand. And I have set about listing some of the definitions of set, which I have done.
Now look, if I list off all of them, you’re gonna fall asleep and I’m gonna get bored.
So, that was long, and we barely even scratched the surface of the sets there are, but what about run?
Run may at first seem to have one definition — to run. To move at a pace that is faster than a walk, never keeping both feet on the ground at the same time. However, run could also mean competing in a race — she ran in the 200 meters. You can spend the whole day running after kids, if you’re a babysitter, you probably know this very well.
A rumor can run through a group, someone driving could — though it certainly isn't advisable — run a red light, or run their car off of the road. Boats can run rapids. You can run your hands under a faucet. And if you were very sad… or just have allergies, your nose would be running. Not literally though. That would be a nightmare.
Red dye can run if you wash your whites with colors. You can run a business. Everything could be running according to plan. A car runs on fuel to operate correctly. And a course can run for an entire semester. A play could be running 15 minutes late.
You know how newspapers are constantly being dramatic? Well, say there was a purchase of a painting. Newspapers would run the story. "Priceless Painting Purchased!" ran the headline… except instead of a painting, it’s a banana taped to the wall. Looks like somebody got their pockets ran.
You can go for a run. I could set off on a run. And run has a clear run at the title of the most complex word. You can run for president. I could've had a run of bad luck. And that bad luck can stand out from the general run of bad luck stories.
Speaking of bad luck, some people believe that black cats and walking under ladders is bad luck. Imagine there was a creepy guy who lived across your street who had an irritable black cat that was given the run of the neighborhood. That wouldn't be great for the people who believe in black-cat-bad-luck.
Also, paint can run. Not literally, that would be very odd, but it can trickle down when applied too thickly.
All this while, we've been discussing the most complex words. However, we've been defining "complex word" as "most definitions." But what if we change how we interpret the word? What if, now "complex" means "hardest to understand?"
Well, now one word springs to mind immediately. "Literally." I literally just thought of literally when I thought of words hardest to understand. Right now, I used the word to increase emphasis on the sentence. However, the primary definition is "in a literal manner of sense; or exactly."
The number of "emphasis" uses for the word literally by far surpasses the uses for the primary definition in everyday conversations. If the word is used for emphasis, then some odd things come up that are… complex.
According to Mirriam-Webster, literally is similar to figuratively, one of its sister words. Figuratively and literally's "stylish" uses cause some problems — if "literally" means "in a literal sense or manner," what does that have to do with placing emphasis? The two definitions don't have anything to do with each other, they weren’t supposed to be similar, but because of how we just decided to use it, they literally had to put it in the dictionary.
Moving on, we have another confusing word — "ironic." It references "irony" within its primary definition — "using or characterized by irony." We'll come back to "irony" in a few seconds — for now, let's focus on irony’s other definition — "happening in the opposite way to what is expected, and typically causing amusement because of it."
Computers are helpful. They contain many tools to assist you or allow you to do things. When's the last time your computer crashed, though? The answer varies, but a similar question's answer doesn't — how often does your computer crash? The answer is likely quite often. Ironically, computers crash often when they are supposed to save you time.
That use of irony is confusing. It’s something that goes against what you'd expect. Now, let's return to irony… the other irony. Searching it in Google brings up several definitions.
Turn your attention to the primary definition — "the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect."
Wait. Back up for a second. Isn't that sarcasm? When you purposely say things sarcastically? Or, is it ironically? Do you see where things are starting to go awry? Turns out, sarcasm is irony — sort of. Sarcasm is "the use of irony to mock or convey contempt." So you can see some words have definitions that are just other words.
Anyways, back to irony. The second definition of irony is "a state of affairs or an event that seems contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result." That is easier to understand.
Oh, what's that? There are multiple types of irony? Yeah, there are, in fact, three types — verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony.
Verbal irony is very similar to sarcasm — speaking untruths in a way that is so obviously not the case that it comes off as a joke. For example, if it is raining very hard, someone could say "what lovely weather we are having at the moment.” What separates it from sarcasm is that sarcasm is specifically intended to mock, while verbal irony doesn't have to be mocking.
Dramatic irony is commonly associated with the theater. It's where the audience knows that something is going to happen, but the characters don't, and the characters say something ironic. For example, vocabulary.com gives an excellent example: If there was a movie about the Titanic and when the ship is just about to hit the iceberg, a character stops and says, "It's so pretty, I could just die," the audience knows that the character will likely die, so therefore, it is ironic.
Situational irony is the type of irony that is comedic. According to dictionary.com, situational irony is "irony involving a situation in which actions have an effect that is opposite from what was intended, so that the outcome is opposite to what was expected."
There are a lot of other complicated words in English that aren't thought of as complicated until, well, someone tells you that they are. And if nobody else will, I will.
For example, take "like." Simple enough when you first think of it — "in like manner with; similarly to; in the manner characteristic of." An example of a sentence with that definition would be something like, "She ran like a lightning bolt."
Another use comes to mind — "He's like his mother." Oh, and "She's more like 40 to 50 years old." However, there are also the old-fashioned, poetic definitions of "like" such as "I cannot remember a like instance" or "drawing, painting, and like arts."
Oh, and don't forget the instances of "like" that are oddly placed in a sentence, something like "the guy was standing against the wall, looking very tough like."
There’s like a few more basic ones, but let's skip over those for now. You get the point. However, the informal definitions are more interesting. Sentences such as "So, like, why'd you do that" use the informal definition of "like." The dreaded use is very common in informal or in-person speech, and it's used as a filler for when your brain is trying to catch up with your speech.
It’s like our brains collectively all decided to use like… as like… a filler word. Get it?
That was a lot, and even all that wasn't even close to covering all the weirdness and inconsistencies that there are in the English language. However, it is still shocking that the most complex words in the English language are only three letters long each: set, and soon to be run.
I guess there’s lessons in all of this. Simple sets of ideas can run far and lead to complex results… and honestly, we really make learning English a lot more difficult than necessary.
- CS, MM