set (v.)

Middle English setten, from Old English settan (transitive) "cause to sit; make or cause to rest as on a seat; cause to be put, placed, or seated;" also "put in a definite place," also "arrange, fix adjust; fix or appoint (a time) for some affair or transaction," and "cause (thoughts, affections) to dwell on."

This is from Proto-Germanic *(bi)satejanan "to cause to sit, set" (source also of Old Norse setja, Swedish sätta, Old Saxon settian, Old Frisian setta, Dutch zetten, German setzen, Gothic satjan), causative form of PIE *sod-, a variant of the root *sed- (1) "to sit." Also see set (n.2). It has been confused with sit (v.) at least since early 14c. 

The intransitive sense of "be seated" is from c. 1200; that of "sink down, descend, decline toward and pass below the horizon" (of the sun, moon, or stars) is by mid-13c., perhaps from similar use of the cognates in Scandinavian languages; figurative use of this is from c. 1600.

Many uses are highly idiomatic, the verb, like put, its nearest equivalent, and do, make, get, etc., having become of almost universal application, and taking its distinctive color from the context. [Century Dictionary]

The sense of "make or cause to do, act, or be; start, bring (something) to a certain state" (on fire, in order, etc.) and that of "mount a gemstone" are attested by mid-13c. That of "determine upon, resolve" is from c. 1300; hence be set against "resisting" (mid-14c.).

The sense of "make a table ready for a meal" is from late 14c.; that of "regulate or adjust by a standard" (of a clock, etc.) is from late 14c. In printing, "to place (types) in the proper order for reading; put into type," 1520s. From c. 1500 as "put words to music." From 1570s as "put (a broken or dislocated bone) in position." In cookery, plastering, etc., "become firm or solid in consistency" by 1736.

To set (one's) heart on (something) is from c. 1300 as "love, be devoted to;" c. 1400 as "have a desire for." To set (one's) mind is from mid-15c.; transitive set (one's mind) to "determine to accomplish" is from late 15c.  To set (something) on "incite to attack" (c. 1300) originally was in reference to hounds and game. To set an example is mid-14c. (set (v.) in the sense of "present" is from late Old English). The notion of "fix the value of" is behind old phrases such as set at naught "regard as nothing."

To set out is from c. 1300 as "display (for sale);" to set up shop "commence doing business" is from c. 1400.

set (adj.)

late Old English, sett, "appointed or prescribed beforehand;" hence "fixed, immovable, definite;" c.1300, of a task, etc., "imposed, prescribed;" past participle of setten "to set" (see set (v.)). By early 14c. as "ready." By 14c. with adverbs, "having a (specified) position, disposition, etc.;" by late 14c. as "placed, positioned;" to be set "be ready"

By 1510s as "formal, regular, in due form, deliberate;" 1530s as "placed in a setting, mounted." By c. 1600, of phrases, expression, etc., "composed, not spontaneous" (hence set speech, one planned carefully beforehand). By 1810 of the teeth, "clenched." The meaning "ready, prepared" is recorded from 1844.

By 1844 in reference to athletes poised to start a race, etc., or their muscles, "have or assume a rigid attitude or state." The exact phrase Get set! in the procedure of sprinting (after on your marks) is attested by 1890. A set piece, in theater, is "piece of free-standing scenery only moderately high, representing a single feature (such as a tree) and permitting more distant pieces to be seen over it" (by 1859); also, in the arts, "a painted or sculptured group" (1846).

set (n.1)

"collection of matching things," mid-15c., sette, sete, earlier "religious sect" (late 14c.), in part from Middle English set, past participle of setten (see set (v.)) and in part from Old French sette, sete "sequence," a variant of secte "religious community," from Medieval Latin secta "retinue," from Latin secta "a following" (see sect).

Skeat first proposed that set (n.), in the sense of "a number of things or persons belonging together" ultimately was a corruption of the source of sect, influenced by set (v.) in subsequent developments as if meaning "a number set together." Thus this noun set was in Middle English earliest in the sense of "religious sect," which also likely developed some modern meanings, such as "group of people" (mid-15c.), especially "persons customarily or officially associated" (1680s); "group of persons with shared status, habits, or affinities" (1777).

The meaning "a number of things having a resemblance or natural affinity; complete collection of pieces to be used together" is by 1560s. Hence, "collection of volumes by one author" (1590s), "complete apparatus for some purpose" (1891, of telephones, radio, etc.).

Meaning "group of pieces musicians perform at a club during 45 minutes" (more or less) is from c. 1925, though it is found in a similar sense from 1580s. Set-piece is from 1846 as "grouping of people in a work of visual art;" from 1932 in reference to literary works.

The word sett is a variant, preserved in old law and "now prevalent in many technical senses" [OED].


Egyptian god, from Greek Seth, from Egyptian Setesh.

set (n.2)

"act of setting; state or condition of being set" (originally of the sun or another heavenly body), mid-14c., from set (v.) or its identical past participle. Old English had set "seat," in plural "camp; stable," but OED finds it "doubtful whether this survived beyond OE." Compare set (n.1).

Disparate senses collect under this word because of the many meanings given the verb. The sense of "manner or position in which something is set" is by 1530s, hence "general movement, direction, drift, tendency, inclination" (of mind, character, policy, etc.), by 1560s.

The meaning "permanent change of shape caused by pressure; a bend, warp, kink" is by 1812; that of "action of hardening," by 1837. Hence "action or result of fixing the hair when damp so that it holds the desired style" (1933).

"Something that has been set" (1510s), hence the use in tennis, "set of six games which counts as a unit" (1570s) and set-point "state of the game at which one side or player needs only one point to win the set" (by 1928).

The theatrical meaning "scenery for an individual scene in a play, etc.," is by 1859, from the past-participle adjective. It later was extended in movie and television production to the place or area where filming takes place.

Set (n.1) and set (n.2) are not always distinguished in dictionaries; OED has them as two entries, Century Dictionary as one. The difference of opinion seems to be whether the set meaning "group, grouping" (here (n.2)) is a borrowing of the unrelated French word that sounds like the native English one, or a borrowing of the sense only, which was absorbed into the English word.

updated on June 26, 2022

Definitions of set from WordNet
set (v.)
put into a certain place or abstract location;
Synonyms: put / place / pose / position / lay
set (v.)
fix conclusively or authoritatively;
set the rules
Synonyms: determine
set (v.)
decide upon or fix definitely;
Synonyms: specify / determine / define / fix / limit
set (v.)
establish as the highest level or best performance;
set a record
Synonyms: mark
set (v.)
put into a certain state; cause to be in a certain state;
set the house afire
set (v.)
fix in a border;
The goldsmith set the diamond
set (v.)
make ready or suitable or equip in advance for a particular purpose or for some use, event, etc;
Synonyms: fix / prepare / set up / ready / gear up
set (v.)
set to a certain position or cause to operate correctly;
set clocks or instruments
set (v.)
The film is set in Africa
Synonyms: localize / localise / place
set (v.)
disappear beyond the horizon;
the sun sets early these days
Synonyms: go down / go under
set (v.)
adapt for performance in a different way;
set this poem to music
Synonyms: arrange
set (v.)
put or set (seeds, seedlings, or plants) into the ground;
Synonyms: plant
set (v.)
apply or start;
set fire to a building
set (v.)
become gelatinous;
Synonyms: jell / congeal
set (v.)
set in type;
set these words in italics
Synonyms: typeset
set (v.)
put into a position that will restore a normal state;
set a broken bone
set (v.)
insert (a nail or screw below the surface, as into a countersink);
Synonyms: countersink
set (v.)
give a fine, sharp edge to a knife or razor;
set (v.)
urge to attack someone;
Synonyms: sic
set (v.)
Synonyms: place / put
set (v.)
equip with sails or masts;
Synonyms: rig / set up
set (v.)
get ready for a particular purpose or event;
set up an experiment
set the table
Synonyms: set up / lay out
set (v.)
alter or regulate so as to achieve accuracy or conform to a standard;
Synonyms: adjust / correct
set (v.)
bear fruit;
Synonyms: fructify
set (v.)
arrange attractively;
Synonyms: dress / arrange / do / coif / coiffe / coiffure
set (n.)
a group of things of the same kind that belong together and are so used;
a set of books
a set of golf clubs
a set of teeth
set (n.)
(mathematics) an abstract collection of numbers or symbols;
the set of prime numbers is infinite
set (n.)
several exercises intended to be done in series;
he did four sets of the incline bench press
Synonyms: exercise set
set (n.)
representation consisting of the scenery and other properties used to identify the location of a dramatic production;
the sets were meticulously authentic
Synonyms: stage set
set (n.)
an unofficial association of people or groups;
the smart set goes there
Synonyms: circle / band / lot
set (n.)
a relatively permanent inclination to react in a particular way;
the set of his mind was obvious
Synonyms: bent
set (n.)
the act of putting something in position;
he gave a final set to his hat
set (n.)
a unit of play in tennis or squash;
they played two sets of tennis after dinner
set (n.)
the process of becoming hard or solid by cooling or drying or crystallization;
he tested the set of the glue
Synonyms: hardening / solidifying / solidification / curing
set (n.)
the descent of a heavenly body below the horizon;
before the set of sun
set (n.)
(psychology) being temporarily ready to respond in a particular way;
the subjects' set led them to solve problems the familiar way and to overlook the simpler solution
his instructions deliberately gave them the wrong set
Synonyms: readiness
set (n.)
any electronic equipment that receives or transmits radio or tv signals;
the early sets ran on storage batteries
set (adj.)
being below the horizon;
the moon is set
set (adj.)
(usually followed by `to' or `for') on the point of or strongly disposed;
we are set to go at any time
Synonyms: fit / primed
set (adj.)
fixed and unmoving; "his bearded face already has a set hollow look"- Connor Cruise O'Brien;
with eyes set in a fixed glassy stare
Synonyms: fixed / rigid
set (adj.)
situated in a particular spot or position;
a house set on a hilltop
Synonyms: located / placed / situated
set (adj.)
set down according to a plan;
a carefully laid table with places set for four people
Synonyms: laid
set (adj.)
determined or decided upon as by an authority;
the time set for the launching
Synonyms: determined / dictated
set (adj.)
converted to solid form (as concrete);
Synonyms: hardened
Set (n.)
evil Egyptian god with the head of a beast that has high square ears and a long snout; brother and murderer of Osiris;
Synonyms: Seth
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