There are about two million words in the English language and exactly twenty-six letters in the English alphabet. Therefore, the average English word should be less than five letters long, since there are over eleven million words that can be spelled with five letters. However, in fact the average length of an English word is around twelve letters.

One possible explanation is that human physiology and the laws of acoustics prevent an arbitrary combination of letters from being pronounced or understood. However, something else must be going on, because even if we restrict every word to be an alternation of consonants and vowels, we need fewer than seven letters to express two million words.

Probably the explanation for this redundancy is that English (like all natural languages) was not engineered; it evolved. Words evolved from earlier words. If the earlier lexicons were smaller than English, and decreasing in size the further back in time we go, then this goes a long way to explaining the inefficiency of English today.

If we imagine that at some point lost in the mysts of prehistory we find a small number of primitive word forms, then these word forms should have left their footprints in the current English lexicon. One form these footprints might take is "hard working words," i.e., words that function as many different parts of speech or have many different senses.

For example, the word "like" functions as eight parts of speech

noun "We may never see its like again." verb "Fruit flies like a banana." adjective "People of like tastes agree." adverb "The rate is more like 12 percent." preposition "Time flies like an arrow." conjunction "They acted like they were scared." interjection "Like, man, that was far out." verbal auxiliary "So loud I like to fell out of bed."

The word "but" functions as seven parts of speech

conjunction "It never rains but it pours." adverb "He is but a child." interjection "But, your honor, I object!" preposition "I want nothing but my due." pronoun "Nobody but has his fault." noun "The but [halibut? put up a fight." adjective "He lived in the but [outer? room." [Scottish?

Other words that function as five or more parts of speech
after (adjective, adverb, conjunction, noun, preposition) aught (adjective, adverb, noun, pronoun, verb) as (adverb, conjunction, noun, preposition, pronoun) best (adjective, adverb, noun, verb, verbal auxiliary) better (adjective, adverb, noun, verb, verbal auxiliary) bully (adjective, adverb, interjection, noun, verb) con (adjective, adverb, noun, preposition, verb) cross (adjective, adverb, noun, preposition, verb) dear (adjective, adverb, interjection, noun, verb) down (adjective, adverb, noun, preposition, verb) fast (adjective, adverb, interjection, noun, verb) fore (adjective, adverb, interjection, noun, preposition) gin (adjective, adverb, conjunction, noun, preposition, verb) in (adjective, adverb, noun, preposition, verb) less (adjective, adverb, conjunction, noun, preposition, pronoun) near (adjective, adverb, noun, preposition, verb) off (adjective, adverb, noun, preposition, verb) out (adjective, adverb, noun, preposition, verb) over (adjective, adverb, noun, preposition, verb) plus (adjective, adverb, conjunction, noun, preposition, verb) round (adjective, adverb, noun, preposition, verb) so (adjective, adverb, conjunction, noun, pronoun) still (adjective, adverb, conjunction, noun, verb) that (adjective, adverb, conjunction, noun, pronoun) thwart (adjective, adverb, noun, preposition, verb) up (adjective, adverb, noun, preposition, verb) well (adjective, adverb, interjection, noun, verb) what (adjective, adverb, conjunction, noun, pronoun)

Another way to measure the work that a word is doing is the number of different homographs that it has. This is related to the different etymologies and functions of the word.

In Webster's Third, the following words have 10 or more homographs. In this table and the next one, "senses" refers to the number of senses that the word has, "hom" refers to the number of homographs that the word has, "pos" refers to the number of parts of speech it functions as, and the remaining columns contain counts for each part of speech.

word senses hom pos noun verb adjective adverb conj prep interj --------- ------ --- --- ---- ---- --------- ------ ---- ---- ------ buck 62 13 4 32 28 1 1 con 20 13 5 9 7 2 1 1 pan 46 13 3 30 14 2 pink 40 13 3 22 14 4 rack 58 13 2 38 20 port 36 12 3 30 5 1 post 77 12 4 48 26 1 2 flush 59 11 4 18 22 16 3 frank 30 11 3 11 10 9 gin 19 11 6 11 3 1 1 2 1 pike 32 11 2 28 4 scale 95 11 3 56 38 1 tip 53 11 2 31 22 bay 45 10 3 37 7 1 bob 51 10 2 31 20 chuck 30 10 2 17 13 cog 23 10 2 14 9 flag 60 10 3 39 20 1 how 31 10 4 6 15 6 4 mull 18 10 2 9 9 peel 20 10 2 11 9 plat 23 10 3 16 5 2 race 50 10 3 37 12 1 shag 23 10 3 12 10 1

Probably the best way to measure a word is the count of the senses or different meanings that the word has. Of course, when two meanings are different is a matter of judgement. There are two kinds of lexicographers: splitters and groupers. Splitters tend to assign more meanings to a word; groupers tend to combine many meanings into one definition. It is interesting to note that the editors of the Merriam-Webster dictionaries assign hard working words to groupers. Thus the sense counts of these words tend to be minimized in Merriam-Webster dictionaries.

In Webster's Third, the following words have 100 or more senses
word senses hom pos noun verb adjective adverb conj prep interj --------- ------ --- --- ---- ---- --------- ------ ---- ---- ------ break 245 4 2 89 156 set 223 3 3 85 122 16 turn 216 3 2 85 131 take 179 2 2 33 146 run 178 3 3 74 97 7 strike 174 2 2 46 128 cut 168 3 3 68 90 10 draw 146 2 2 45 101 line 142 6 3 114 22 6 point 142 2 2 113 29 up 138 6 5 4 10 55 59 10 shoot 135 5 3 42 92 1 open 133 4 4 11 35 86 1 stock 133 5 4 104 18 10 1 round 130 6 5 50 26 24 16 14 pass 129 4 2 49 80 stick 126 6 4 75 48 2 1 block 121 3 3 84 32 5 down 121 9 5 24 18 30 40 9 lead 121 6 3 68 49 4 close 120 5 4 20 53 40 7 flat 118 5 4 55 11 44 8 pitch 115 4 2 63 52 beat 114 6 3 40 70 4 roll 114 3 2 56 58 slip 113 8 3 61 48 4 head 111 3 3 88 19 4 drive 108 3 3 40 67 1 blow 107 5 2 38 69 double 106 4 4 44 42 16 4 go 106 3 2 18 88 hold 106 4 2 27 79 light 106 6 4 43 17 45 1 play 103 2 2 30 73 drop 102 2 2 50 52 stop 102 3 3 47 53 2 well 101 9 5 51 3 17 26 4 cover 100 2 2 39 61 out 100 5 5 14 12 7 64 3 right 100 5 4 43 10 33 14 top 100 5 3 62 29 9

So what is the hardest working word in English? My vote goes to BREAK, with four homographs, 89 noun senses, 156 verb senses, and an incredible 245 senses overall. Now there's a word.

lib/DbaDatabase.php:134: Warning: dba_replace() [<a href='function.dba-replace'>function.dba-replace</a>]: You cannot perform a modification to a database without proper access